Driving While Old
Old People and Weather

Can You Trust Online Health Information?

Or, for that matter, any other kind of information? There are some general rules of thumb that anyone with even minimal critical thinking skills probably uses:

Who is doing the writing? What are his/her credentials? (If there is no author name AND link to the author's bio, reject it.)

Who sponsors or owns the website? That is, who pays the bills to keep it running and updated? (For health information, a commercial enterprise or an individual is a yellow alert. Check further.)

How is the information sourced? (These could be links to research material or not. At good health sites, often the physician writing the article is the expert.)

Who, if any, are the advertisers and what is the physical relationship on the pages to the stories? (Nothing wrong with advertising to help keep the doors open but if, for example, an ad for a prescription drug is placed next to an article about the condition or disease it treats, alarm bells should go off.)

Does it pass the smell test? (If a health information website is selling miracle cures or a one-pill-cures-all nostrum, leave.)

Those are just a few tests and you probably know them.

About a week ago, the National Institute on Aging (NIA), one of the institutes and centers of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), published what they call an Age Page with guidelines on how to tell if health information online is reliable.

It is a useful checklist, as far as it goes. They suggest some of the same items I do (above) along with reminders to check for privacy protections and suggest that health sites of the federal government, medical schools and large professional or non-profits are the most reliable.

I don't agree that those are the only trustworthy health websites and until I find out otherwise, I would question “large professional and non-profits” for an agenda of their own.

Another requirement for a trustworthy site to me and to the NIA is dated articles.

An amazing number of websites don't date their stories which, aside from the headline, is the first thing I look for. Then (if it's not just a silly website for vegging out to cat videos) I check for an author name and if all three are present, I read. If one is missing, I leave.)

Whether it is news or any other kind of information, it cannot be assessed without knowing when it was written. That doesn't mean older dates make information useless (depends on the topic) but you will think differently about a story on, for example, nutrition if it was written before the newest research on salt and sugar intake began circulating.

Dating articles is crucial and I rank it with misspellings and poor grammar as an instant alert to suspect material. For me, every page of a website must have a published date.

As I was beginning to prepare this blog post and although I am reasonably familiar with NIA website, I checked the About Page, probably for the first time. No date. Plus, it states that the 65-plus population of the United States is 39 million. That seemed off to me, and it is.

I checked with the U.S. Census Bureau and the most recent semi-annual estimate, from last July, was 44.7 million; it hasn't been 39 million since before 2010.

You could say a undated About Page is unimportant but it's often the first page newcomers read and out-of-date information is a big red flag calling an entire website into question.

Does that mean I believe the NIA website is dubious? Absolutely not. They produce an large amount of good health information (even if you do need to wade through a lot of professional material not intended for consumers like you and me).

And all the health and medical stories I checked include dates, author names and links to their bios. I've not used this website frequently but I've bookmarked it now although I am partial, as a first but not only stop for general information, to the non-governmental WebMD.

Here is the webpage version of the NIA guide to trusting online health information. The PDF version is here.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Joyce Benedict: Spring Whispers


For those who want to delve deeply into source material it pays to check where the original research was published.

A proceedings paper might not have adequate (or any) peer review before publication. An article in a reputable scientific journal that uses referees would be much more credible.

Although what Gabbygeezer writes is true, only abstracts of scientific journal articles, with barely one or two exceptions, are available without subscriptions to the journalis at hundreds and even thousands of dollars a year. Single articles are easily US$50 and often much more.

For non-wealthy readers, this is not an option.

Right you are, Crabby, but I was not suggesting any necessity to read entire research articles (or even abstracts), only the wisdom of checking to see where the documentation was published.

It can also be useful to check the researchers' bios to see what boards and committees etc they are on. Big Pharma has its sneaky little tentacles everywhere and even the most reputable-sounding 'experts' might have dubious agendas.

Unless you have the medical or scientific background to understand the journal articles, you are better off not reading them. Any information you get from an online source should only be used as a "talking point" when you see your doctor. Trying to treat yourself is ridiculous and dangerous. Even apparently benign so called "natural remedies" can conflict with medication you are taking.
What comes to mind is an herbal supplement that became popular a couple of years ago. Remember St. Johns Wort. People were taking it as an ant-depressant. While there were some benefits attributed to the use of this herb, there was a list of side effects as long as your arm.

Good guidelines that also apply to other sources like television, newspapers, magazines ... perhaps even your doctor. (Does he/she get paid by any drug companies; or have an interest in the testing lab you're using?) I use WebMD and find it reasonably helpful; but give more credence to reports from universities and credited hospitals. And, yeah, I agree with you -- I HATE those reports that are not dated.

I would add Medline Plus.

I want to caution the community not to foster worry or concern where none is needed or intended.

This is a discussion of the trustworthiness of online health and medical information; no talk of self-treatment is involved here today and it sidetracks the good information we can share on the real topic at hand.

Since we use Mayo, we use mayoclinic.com (it is free and very good). It helps to reinforce the explanation and understanding we need. If further explanation is needed we frequently go to WebMD and the NIH site.

I agree going to the physician with excessive info has always been shunned with a comment that goes something like, "Don't do that!".

I have also agree there are many times the online data creates extraordinary concern. More so than the existing condition necessitates.

I fall back and remind myself of these offensive Pharm ads you see on TV with all the warnings attached. If you had any of those symptoms they warn you to, "See your physician".

S/he would probably have said, "I told you so."

Your recommendations for using critical thinking skills are welcome! We all need to remember to have our BS detectors on while reading anything online. I appreciate the miracle of being able to find out almost anything instantly through the internet. But we still need to apply the critical thinking tests to assure that what we read is good information.

Like Yellowstone, I subscribe to the Mayo Clinic paper. It always tells you to see your doctor after explaining symptoms. But I do use critical thinking and use any medical article merely as a first step to see if further research or a trip to the doc is called for.

Excellent post Ronni! There are some decent books as well: Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre (good reviews from M.D.s), Overtreated by Shannon Brownlee, and Selling Sickness by Ray Moynihan and Alan Cassels. As with all reference books, check out the authors. We really have to do our own research - read Bad Pharma for reasoning. Fortunately there seems to be some movement toward respecting the uniqueness of each individual and also doctors partnering with their patients rather than treatment based on one-size-fits -all based on the statistics of often flawed studies with profit being the goal.

I would trust noted health institutions like Mayo Clinic; government institutions like the NIH (National Institutes of Health), CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), and MedLine; well respected sites like WebMD; and those accredited by HON (Health on the Net Foundation). Also check specific relevant organizations like the American Heart Association and American Cancer Society. And always consult your physician before making or implementing any health decision, change, or treatment you find online.

As a former medical editor, my preference would always be to read the original published research. (I had free access when I was working.) But as noted above, the subscriptions are much too expensive for most of us retirees. Still, you can sometimes glean valuable information from the abstracts.

Even when an article raises warning flags in my mind, I do sometimes read it anyway. With appropriate skepticism.

For instance, I saw reports of the recent research that suggested an occasional 2- to 3-day fast could be beneficial to the immune system. Of course it also said "more research is needed," which is all very well for researchers and more power to them, but for me the question was, "Hmm, but I have this nasty persistent cough that my doctor hasn't been able to help me with. Should I try this?" The not-yet-done further research couldn't answer that question!

What I needed to know was the downside, if any, of doing a 3-day water fast. I spent quite a few days researching fasting online, and let me tell you, that takes you to many many pages that want to sell you something, and many other pages full of fanatics who have convinced themselves fasting is the answer to every ailment. But! Some common themes emerged from the reliable and unreliable sites alike, and I eventually decided it was a safe enough thing to try.

Did fasting help my cough? Nope, not enough to notice. I'm now thinking it's probably not an infection. But I haven't had a cold since, so hey, maybe it did some good.

I second the advice given in the first paragraph of Bruce Cooper's comment. Aside from knowledge in the medical field, most of us are woefully lacking in knowing how to judge methodologies and statistical methods used in evaluations of treatments or medications.

Cop Car and Bruce.

I read this stuff on occasion but rarely, if ever, follow it. Medline, Mayo Clinic and WebMD are probably the most reliable, but if I need medical advice, I email or visit my HMO. Big Pharma detailers are not permitted on the premises.

I like Mayo, too.

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