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Finding Health Information on the Web

Man using laptopHow often do you use the internet to research treatment options for your pain? While the internet can provide you with a wealth of information on health conditions and treatments, finding credible health information can be a challenge. Knowing what you're looking for is one thing, knowing where to find it is another. And then there's the issue of credibility. Since anyone can post on the web, it can be hard to tell whether the information you find is accurate and up-to-date.

If you want a good breakdown of what a research article is and how to understand it, read 9 Questions to Help you Make Sense of Scientific Research by NIH-NCCIH.

Here are the sections that you will find below:  

What Makes Health Information Credible  

Credible health information will always inform you of where its source is and if the information is supported or published by an accredited not for profit scientific research organization. If you are unsure about the accuracy of a piece of health information or are considering changing your medical treatment, consult a medical professional.

Health on the Net Foundation is a non-government organization dedicated to the field of health information ethics, and established a code of ethical conduct, the HONcode to help health organizations and consumers find more credible health information on the web.

Based on the HONcode Principles, HON suggests consumers should consider the following characteristics of websites conveying health information:

  • Authoritative - Health information websites should indicate the qualifications of the authors
  • Complementarity - Information should support, not replace, the doctor-patient relationship
  • Privacy - Respect the privacy and confidentiality of personal data submitted to the site by the visitor
  • Attribution - Cite the source(s) of published information, date and medical and health pages
  • Justifiability - Must back up claims relating to benefits and performance
  • Transparency - Accessible presentation, accurate email contact
  • Financial disclosure - Identify funding sources
  • Advertising policy - Clearly distinguish advertising from editorial content

Health information providers can seek certification from HON to help consumers recognize that their health information addresses the above characteristics. Our website is in the process of being certified by HON. However HON principles by themselves do not help consumers make informed judgements about the quality of researchsupporting the health information presented.

The National Health Services (NHS) Executive Research and Development Programme in the United Kingdom have supported a project called DISCERN on the Internet Project which has some similar principles as the HON project.

Consumers require good quality evidence-based information so they can take an active role in decisions about their health care. Online consumer health information is growing at an unprecedented rate, but users and providers currently have no systematic way of judging its quality. The DISCERN instrument is a set of quality criteria developed for written consumer health information on treatment choices.

The DISCERN instrument asks health consumers to rate how well the website addresses the following issues. The first section asks consumers to consider how relevant and reliable are the information provided. The second section asks consumers to consider the quality of the information on treatment choices.

Is the publication reliable?

Does it achieve its aims? Is it relevant? Is it clear what sources of information were used to compile the publication (other than the author or producer)? Is it clear when the information used or reported in the publication was produced? Is it balanced and unbiased? Does it provide details of additional sources of support and information? Does it refer to areas of uncertainty?

How good is the quality of information on treatment choices?

Does it describe how each treatment works? Does it describe the benefits of each treatment? Does it describe the risks of each treatment? Does it describe what would happen if no treatment is used? Does it describe how the treatment choices affect overall quality of life? Is it clear that there may be more than one possible treatment choice? Does it provide support for shared decision-making?

The DISCERN instrument and the handbook are available as a PDF documentfor good quality print copies.

Health information is More Likely to be Credible If...

  • The information is science-based and clearly shows the strength of research evidence supporting its information.
  • The author or organization's credentials are clearly stated
  • The author cites academic research and lists all its sources recognizing that the best evidence is usually based on a systematic review of all research on a given topic rather than a single study
  • The website has a medical/ health professional editorial board and policy

Here are a few quick and easy ways to tell if a site is more likely credible:

Last Puzzle PieceSearch the About Us/Who We Are section for website sponsors. If the sponsors are research-based, accredited health organizations, or non-profits consumer health organizations with an academic-based scientific editorial board , the information is more likely to be credible. If the sponsors are companies trying to selling something or lack accreditation, take their advice with a grain of salt.

Names and credentials of listed authors and editors. If the information lists authors and editors with medical, academic, or research credentials, and provides links to systematic reviews, the site more likely is credible.

The Terms of Use clearly state that you should not to substitute health information on the site for a doctor’s diagnosis. The Terms of Use are usually located at the bottom of a website, in the footer. The clause says something like this "THE SITE DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE" Sometimes the medical disclaimer clause gets buried in technical, legal language so it is important to read the fine print carefully.

HON Code Certification. As referenced earlier, one of the easiest ways to tell if a health site is striving to be ethical is if it is HON Code certified. While not a guarantee for information based on high-quality research, it shows the goals of the website are to be transparent about their content.

Where to Find Credible Health Information

Unsure about where to find credible health information online? Here are few places to start:

Health research websites like MedlinePlusCochrane Collaboration Consumer Network, and Health Evidence.caThese sites are sponsored by a government, medical research or health organization. Broad in scope, these sites touch on a variety of health topics and are meant to be a starting place for further research.

Trusted health organizations that are either non-profit or government sponsored are also a great place to start your search. These health organizations usually offer medical resources, including referral links to health centres, and their content is often peer-reviewed by accredited health professionals. Examples include: The Arthritis Society, The Canadian Pain Society, The Arthritis Research Centre of Canada, The Heart and Stroke Foundation, The Canadian Mental Health Association and Ottawa Health Research Institute.

Tips:

  • Check to see when the website was last updated. The more recent the date, the more credible the site
  • Does the website contain broken links? Broken links are an easy sign that the website is not up-to-date
  • Are there advertisements? Advertisements are often on sites that want to sell you a cure rather than help you improve your health
  • Does the website URL end in .edu, .gov or .org? These endings typically signify that the website created by an educational, organizational, or government agency
Do you have a tip on how to find credible health information online? If so, CIPRD would love to hear from you. Please contact admin@cirpd.org.
 

Last Modified: 1/28/2016 12:01 PM