Successful aging: How to evaluate medical and health information online
This week’s column addresses the second part of S.T.’s question about evaluating medical information on the internet and the concern about her husband’s overreliance on it. We know millions of consumers use digital media to get health information. A Pew internet survey reported that over half of Americans do so.
Anyone who has an internet connection at some point likely has checked the web for information about a sore calf, an inflamed in-grown toenail, a curious test result or a toothache. The question is, “How can you tell the good information from the bad?”
Consider the following questions:
Who publishes the site? Determine if the purpose of the site is to inform, sell a product or even to raise money. Whoever runs the site can easily be determined by the web address. For example, web addresses ending in .edu are published by an organization associated with an educational institution such as a university. Those addresses ending with .gov indicate the web page belongs to a government organization. Those ending with .org usually indicate the site is from a nonprofit. Addresses ending with .com typically mean the site belongs to a company.
Who is responsible for content? A good health-related website will make it easy to see who is responsible for the site, which may be obvious by the end of the web address. The content may be written by a professional association, an individual or commercial organization.
Note whether a product or service is being sold, which may influence the content; beware of hidden agendas.
What is the original source? Some health and medical websites post information collected from other sites or sources. The original source should be stated if the person or organization in charge of the site did not write the material. This does not necessarily detract from the value of the information; it just informs.
What information is collected and why? Websites routinely track the path of visitors to determine pages are used. Some ask the visitor to become a member requesting personal information. If such information is collected, the site should explain how it will be used.
What are the authors’ credentials? Determine the medical credentials for those who prepare the site or review the materials. Are they affiliated with a university, medical institution or other organization? Does the author provide information about relevant experience, educational background or professional work?
Is the content accurate? Websites should be reviewed and updated on a regular basis since medical information changes quickly. The most recent update and review date should be clearly posted. Also look for a medical or scientific advisory board that may have reviewed the content before it was available to the public. Note if the statistics are backed up with evidence.
Is it too good to be true? We’ve all seen ads that tell us to take this supplement to improve our health or to drink this juice to prevent cancer. What is believable? A manufacturer of dietary supplements does not have to prove its safety and effectiveness before it is available to the public.
And then there are the star endorsements. The Kardashians and former television “Bachelor” stars praise gummy vitamins for their chewable nutrients that make your hair healthy. And then there are vitamin C infused showers. Remember, no one is in charge of the internet and there are few rules and regulations. Anyone can build a website; education or professional qualifications are unnecessary.
It is easy to become addicted to the internet’s medical information if it is personally relevant. Yet, too much information for those of us who have no medical or pharmaceutical expertise can lead to unnecessary anxiety and even reluctance to move forward on a most effective treatment plan.
At the same time, we all need to be informed health consumers. The internet provides a wealth of important information. The challenge is to be discriminating and to have a standard or criterion for judging its validity.
Thank you, S.T., for your important question. Having medical information at our disposal is a gift. How we use it is another story.
Note: See https://medlineplus.gov sponsored by the National Library of Medicine and https://healthfinder.gov sponsored by the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Send emails to Helen Dennis at firstname.lastname@example.org, or go to www.facebook.com/SuccessfulAgingCommunity.