With all the information out there on the internet, in magazines, books, newsletters, radio, hotlines and on television, sometimes it’s hard to know where to go for information to learn about health and diseases on your own. I encourage most of my patients to use technology, but I want them to have a list of resources to search when they are looking for information and be able to judge whether it comes from a credible source. A huge amount of information is available online, however sometimes it’s of variable quality and can be difficult for the patient to decide whether or not a particular source is credible.
I think it’s the medical providers responsibility to educate patients on how they can do their own research, because patients may not have:
1) An understanding of the biology of the disease process
2) Knowledge about how to determine if the information is credible based on the type of research study (i.e. case report, single randomized trial or double blinded trial with placebo).
3) Skepticism about the information that may come from biased sources such as from a drug company, from authors with financial conflict of interests and intellectual zeal, or wish for personal aggrandizement.
4) Familiarity with how a patient with the disease presents and the signs and symptoms of the illness
5) An understanding how good scientific research done by well trained scholars in centers of academic excellence
Some hints on finding trustworthy information online:
1) Was the website recommended from someone you trust, such as your physician, the National Institute of Health or A Medical Library Association? I recommend using a trusted source of information rather than relying on a search engine and using the first or second webpage that comes up in the search.
2) Sites such as the Mayo Clinic (http://mayoclinic.com) that display the seal logo on their page.
3) Websites that are sponsored by medical schools, or the government
4) If you type your question into a general search engine such as yahoo, or Google, use multiple sites and compare the information based on the criteria below.
How do you know if a website is good quality? Here are some possible factors to consider:
1) Who created the website? Anyone can create a website or blog and the information all is printed and looks legit, but is it? Is it a well known and respected organization or recommended site by someone you trust?
2) What is the purpose of the website? Consider who the intended audience is, and how it was created.
3) What are the funding sources for the website? Do the producers of the website have some financial interest or sell something that may bias the information presented on the site?
4) Consider the date that the information was released. Medical research is rapidly advancing and the information may be dated. Look for a date that the site updated or posted the information.
5) Consider the evidence when examining the treatment recommendations.
6) Personal experiences of the authors may make for interesting reading material, but should be clearly marked as personal experiences and not be the only rationale for the recommendations.
7) The author of the website or blog should be available for communication and response.
8) The website should explain if there are conflicts of interest or limitations in the information provided and that the information does not replace contact with a medical provider or physician.
9) If there are forums, bulletin boards or interactive chat rooms, be wary of who the participants are.
The Medical Library Association has created a set of criteria to help patients judge the quality of websites for themselves: www.mlanet.org/resources/userguide#3
The US Government has also created a guide called A User’s Guide to Finding and Evaluating Health Information on the web: www.healthfinder.gov
Books: Some credible books that are produced by the government or medical schools include:
1) Mayo Clinic Health Book, 4th Ed. New York Time Home Entertainment, 2009
2) Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide, 1st Edition. New York; Simon and Shuster, 2005
3) American Medical Association Family Medicine Guide, 4th Ed. Indianapolis, IN, Wiley 2004
Magazines: Consumer Reports and American Family Physician publish information responsibly. The information from the American Family Physician magazine is intended for medical providers and may use medical jargon that is less helpful for the average patient however.
Newspapers: The New York Times and Washington Post have medical writers who are scientific backgrounds and often provider information in a very captivating way.
This document is for informational purposes only, and should not be considered medical advice for any individual patient. If you have questions please contact your medical provider.
I hope that you have found this information useful. Wishing you the best of health,
Scott Rennie, DO