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Searching for answers online.

March 20, 2012

Many of us (and probably just about all who are reading this blog) look for information about health conditions online.  The internet is a wonderful resource that can provide links to hundreds (or even thousands) of references in the blink of an eye.  Much easier than going to the library and pouring through the card catalog like you had to do back when I was taught how to do research in high school.  Unfortunately, there is as much bad or poorly researched information on the web as there is good information.

Doctors tend to view this patient research with a jaundiced eye.  The commonly voiced opinion is it makes patients worry too much about extraneous information because they don’t have the expertise to tell the informative from the fraudulent.  Another concern is the time it takes to answer the extra questions patients have about the research they have done.

The Stanford School of Medicine SCOPE blog published an article by a smart lady I met on the Inspire.com Womenheart online support site this week.  Laura Haywood-Cory discusses this issue here.  She brings up some good points and the comments are worth browsing as well.

It’s a real challenge sometimes to separate the wheat from the chaff of online information, but keeping in mind a few simple tips can help.

  • If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.  It’s a cliche, but oh so true!  Anyone promising easy cures, information that can’t be found elsewhere (“Your doctor won’t tell you this!”), or 100% cure rate isn’t telling the whole truth.
  • If the website’s main point is to sell something, read cautiously.  There are countless sites on the internet promoting supplements, herbs, medications, diets, etc.  If they are relying on income from selling supplement X that helps or cures condition Y, the information is very likely to be slanted toward supporting the use of supplement X.  Other treatments will likely get short shrift.
  • When evaluating research, look for signs of the quality of the research.  When a website talks about research into a particular condition or treatment, specific studies should be cited.  Look for citations from scientific journals, preferably journals that are well known such as the Journal of the American Medical Association, British Medical Journal, Science, etc.  Look at the sample size.  If the number of participants is in the hundreds or thousands, this lends more credence to claims than a sample size of a few dozen.
  • Look for confirmation of information.  If you read something on one website, seek confirmation from other sources.  Click on the links to journal articles and read them.  Check other reference sites and see if they agree.  For news items, read multiple accounts and look for consistency in the details.
  • Use known reliable resources.  There are quite a few large scale, useful health information websites out there.  I’ve found Cleveland Clinic, Mayo Clinic, and Web MD to be consistently useful.  There are lots of others, too many to name.  A familiar source doesn’t guarantee complete accuracy, but the more well known they are the more likely the information is of good quality.
  • Check out the author’s credentials.  Does the author have credentials to back them up?  Do they have experience or expertise in the area they are writing about?  You don’t have to have a medical (or nursing!) degree to write accurately about medical topics, but it helps.  Also look at what university granted the degree.  A major university impresses me far more than an online diploma mill.  I’ve also seen instances where someone promoting a product implied that they were a medical doctor, but turned out to have a PhD and no medical degree.

Above all, use common sense.   You can find reliable and helpful information online as long as you take things with a grain of salt until you check them out.  Health care providers are more helpful to patients when they help vet that information from the web rather than sneer at it.  We should be available to answer our patients’ questions about what they read online.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Rosamond Sanderson permalink
    March 20, 2012 5:46 pm

    This brief essay is excellent. Before retirement, my work was to evaluate the validity of a published article. I was always surprised at the number of practicing physicians who failed to question the simple statistics involved in clinical studies.

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