Whether it’s finding a home remedy to tackle a cold or seeking a way to alleviate stubborn back pain, chances are you’ve gone online to research health information before asking your doctor. According to Pew Research, 80% of U.S. internet users have searched for health-related topics on the web, and most of the health-related searches are for specific medical problems they are experiencing.
While the internet is home to countless sources of health information and advice, deciphering what is accurate and what isn’t can be challenging. Here we’ll explore how you can assess the accuracy of health information online and what to be on the lookout for, as well as helpful resources to use.
Assessing Online Health Information
Before trusting online health advice, it’s essential to ask questions to help understand whether or not you’re gathering information from a credible source. Asking yourself who sponsors the website, who wrote the information, and/or when was the article or research published, can help you determine whether the information you’re reading is reliable or not. Here are a few things to be mindful of as you ask these questions:
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If the publishing information is challenging to find, the article may be sponsored.
Sponsored content or advertisements don’t give you a complete overview of the issue you are researching and tend to favor the company or product sponsoring the article. While the information may be helpful, sticking to websites that are run by federal government agencies, hospitals, medical schools or large professional and non-profit organizations will typically provide reliable health information.
Take time to evaluate who the author or contributor is.
If the author(s) of the piece is listed, take time to understand their qualifications, what organization they work for and if they are an expert in the field. Reliable websites should have links or references to the sources of the information in the article.
Be mindful of the date in which the information was published.
Medical knowledge is frequently updated and altered, and while older information is not always a negative, it’s best to rely on the most up-to-date information. For example, if a study was published several years ago, you should look for more recent information to ensure it is still valid.
It is also important to review the sources the article is citing and repeat the same questions listed above to know that the author has done their due diligence as well. It is easy for misinformation to spread online, so adding in these extra steps can help you hone in on accurate and reliable information.
Spotting red flags
You should always double-check any information that you find on the internet, even from reputable sources. Keeping in mind the questions to ask yourself to accurately assess health information, you should also be on the lookout for red flags that may signal unreliable information:
Request to share personal information.
Always be careful with what you share, especially your personal information online. If a website is requesting personal information, it’s best to do your research before providing it.
Cure-all or miracle products.
Chances are you’ve seen miracle drugs or cure-all products being talked about on social media, but it’s important to proceed with caution. Many reliable organizations won’t promote one product over another and instead offer a thorough look at a wide variety of options. Heavy promotion of a single product is usually a good indication that the article or post is sponsored and may be taking money from the organization being named. If the solution seems too good to be true, it typically is.
If an article has not been peer reviewed, that means the research has not been able to be recreated or no other accredited professional supports the findings. Peer-reviewed research provides another layer of authentication and maintains the integrity of the scientific process. The best research typically comes from academic journals, hospitals and government institutions with a strict review process. However, while peer-reviewed research is highly credible, non-peer-reviewed research can still provide accurate information depending on the topic and website that you’re using.
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The bottom line
Your doctor is always the best resource for health information. However, if you do research any health information online and have questions, always contact your doctor to talk through it. Your doctor can help you navigate the health advice you’ve discovered online and work with you to find the next best steps for your health needs.
In addition to your doctor, your health plan can be a source of information about certain conditions and how treatment and services may be covered under your benefits. Resources from Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, like a personal health coach and care management support, are readily available to members to help manage your health goals and distinguish information when it comes to managing chronic conditions and care planning. Through Harvard Pilgrim’s website, members can also create a login to access additional information, such as a more personalized view of their health benefits and progress toward meeting your deductible.
Whether online, through your doctor or through your health plan, there are many great resources for accurate health information, so feel empowered to use these sources to guide your health care journey.