Good health involves making good choices. Good choices depend on good information. Finding good information depends on how good you are at finding information and working out if it is trustworthy. This can be difficult, especially on the internet.
The internet can make it easier to get health information, but it is important to think about the quality of the information and whether it is relevant to you.
There is a lot of health information online. Unfortunately, a lot of it is poor quality. It can even be dangerous. There are seemingly endless contradictory claims about what we can do to improve (or harm) our health:
claims about the positive or negative effects of medicines, surgery and other types of “modern medicine”,
claims about the benefits of lifestyle changes, such as what you eat or how you exercise,
claims about the latest super-food or super-toxic food, and
claims about the amazing impacts of herbal remedies and other types of “traditional” or “alternative” medicines.
Some of these claims are true. Some are false. Many are unsubstantiated, which means we do not know whether they are true or false. People who believe and act on these claims could be wasting their time and money. Following poor health advice can also result in consumers suffering unnecessarily by trying things that do not help and might be harmful, and by not doing things that do help.
Is it clear who is providing the information? Who funds the website? If it is not clear, beware. The “About Us” page on most sites should provide this sort of information.
Find out whether it’s a government body (such as the ACT Health Directorate), professional organisation (such as the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists), not-for-profit institution (such as the Heart Foundation), university, commercial organisation, individual health professional or enthusiastic member of the public.
Government bodies, medical and allied health professional associations (Australian Medical Association, Dietitian’s Association of Australia), relevant institutions (Heart Foundation, Diabetes Australia), and universities are more reliable because they are more accountable.
Look for clues in the name of the website:
– .gov addresses are government bodies,
– .edu are education institutions (universities, colleges)
– .org are not for-profit organisations, and
– .com and .biz are generally used by companies or businesses, while
– .net and.id can be used by companies, businesses and private individuals.
Check to see if the website, and the organisation linked with it, is Australian. If not, some of the information provided might not be relevant to you. Many website addresses will then have a country identifier after them, such as .au (Australia), .uk (United Kingdom) and .us (United States). Country identifiers are not required, so you might have to dig further to see where the website originates.
Websites exist for a purpose – for example, to provide information, to sell a product or to tell the world about the theories of their contributors. Knowing the purpose of a website helps you judge the information it provides. Sites that provide information, without selling a product, will probably give you more balanced advice.
Some pharmaceutical companies produce websites about conditions related to the medications they sell and that promote their medication. That’s not automatically a bad thing, as long as you know that and they are clear about the purpose of the information and the relationship between the information and the profit. It is important to look for information about the condition, medication, and other treatment options from other sources as well.
Check to see if the site is funded or promoted by government agencies, charities or foundations, a business or commercial advertising. Ads should be clearly labelled as advertisements and should not pretend to be information articles.
The best information is based on evidence, not belief. The best information also acknowledges that all treatments have both positives and negatives, and that the outcome of treatments cannot be guaranteed.
Warning signs to watch out for include:
promises that the medicine will be effective for everyone
promises of instant cures
promises of miracle recoveries
words like ‘breakthrough’, ‘secret ingredient’, ‘scientific research’ (without saying what that research showed) or ‘side-effect free’
requests for payment.
Is the information reliable?
Be clear about whether the information is fact or opinion. If it is supposed to be a fact, are sources and references provided? Are these sources reliable ones, such as government statistics, World Health Organisation data or papers published in peer-reviewed medical journals?
Claims such as “ground-breaking research has found…” should be accompanied by a reference to the research so you can check the findings.
If the information appears to be opinion rather than fact, is the writer qualified to give it? Are they presenting their opinion as fact?
Is the information different to the generally accepted facts? If so, what is the basis for their different opinion?
Look for dates on web pages. This is more important for some information. General information about an illness and its causes may not change much in two or three years, but information about its treatment may well change within that time as new research adds to our knowledge and understanding. It’s important to check if the information is recent and up-to-date.
Look for a date that the text was created, posted or updated. If there’s no date, try some of the links – if they don’t work the page might be out of date and may not be being updated regularly.
Most websites link to other sites. Have a look at some of the websites from those links. If a website you’re interested in links to sites you assess to be good quality, then it reflects well. If its links are to websites that you don’t think are very high quality, then this reflects poorly on the website you are looking at.
Are they qualified to give advice?
Find out if the source of the information is likely to be an expert in the topic they are talking about. The “About Us” page can tell you whether there is an editorial board or committee with appropriate credentials – ideally qualifications and expertise in the specific area of health and medicine topic/s featured on the site.
It’s not uncommon for the work of apparently reputable people (doctors, professors) to feature on health information websites. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re qualified to advise on the specific topic. A medical doctor who is an expert is one area is not necessarily an expert in another, for example a Cardiologist can speak authoritatively on heart related issues but is not necessarily an expert on nutrition or obstetrics (pregnancy and child birth).
Another example is information on Vitamin C and its supposed ability to prevent colds and cure cancer. Claims of this kind are often linked to the work of “Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling”. However, Pauling was not an expert in medicine or human health, his two Nobel Prizes had nothing to do with Vitamin C, colds or cancer. The first was for Chemistry (for his work on the chemical bonds in the structure of complex molecules), and the second was the Peace Prize for his opposition to weapons of mass destruction.
Similarly, someone with a PhD can use the title “Dr”, but if their PhD is in English Literature, they’re not qualified to advise on cancer or obesity.
Online forums can provide a useful support network of people with similar medical conditions or concerns, and contributors or moderators do not need to have formal qualifications. These forums can give you insights about treatment and management, but they can also be a source of myths and misleading information. Make sure you double-check any advice about treatments and management with reliable sources, such as your doctor or a trustworthy website.
What about complementary and alternative medicines?
Australian companies producing marketing and advertising information about pharmaceutical medicines are subject to rules and regulations about what can and can’t be said, and there are industry and regulatory bodies that hold them to account.
Because complementary and alternative medicines and therapies aren’t controlled in the same way as conventional pharmaceuticals and therapies, some companies and practitioners can exaggerate the benefits and not mention any risks. This is particularly the case online, where anyone anywhere in the world can say almost anything about the benefits of treatments with no restriction.
There are some common warning signs to watch for – such as claims that one remedy will cure a variety of illnesses, that it is a “medical breakthrough” or that it contains a “secret ingredient”. Relying on testimonials as evidence and vague references to unsourced “clinical research” are other warning signs.
Cochrane is a global independent network of researchers, professionals, patients, carers and people interested in health. They produce Cochrane Reviews; systematic reviews of research in healthcare and health policy. Cochrane Reviews are published on The Cochrane Library.
Cochrane has developed a free online training programme called Cochrane Evidence Essentials. It is an easy-to-follow introduction to Evidence Based Medicine, clinical trials, and Cochrane evidence. It is designed for patients, care givers, family members, policy makers, and members of the healthcare team.
The following websites are a good place to start looking for information:
1. Health Direct. This Australian government site allows you to search for information on symptoms, conditions, diseases, general health (nutrition, fitness) and wellbeing. It also allows you to search for services by location and type.
It then directs you to one or more of its 80+ partners which provides the information, all of which meet prescribed criteria for quality. Partners include The Black Dog Institute, Cancer Council Australia, Australian Indigenous Info Health Net, Vision Australia and the Australian Dental Association.
Health Direct also has a flyer on how to assess online health information. You can find it here
2. Your Health Link. This NSW Government website is a gateway to Australian health related websites and resources – hundreds of websites chosen by health professionals.
The site is designed for consumers, health professionals, students and teachers, linking you to information to support your health needs and broaden your knowledge on health-related topics.
3. Better Health Channel. A source of easy to understand, quality-assured, reliable and up-to-date health, medical and healthy lifestyle information, including about complementary and alternative supplements and therapies.
There are no commercial ads or corporate sponsorship.
4. MedlinePlus. A comprehensive, evidence-based resource. Under “Health Topics” it contains information on symptoms, causes, treatment and prevention for more than 900 diseases, illnesses, health conditions and wellness issues, and under “Drugs and Supplements” there are factsheets on medicines and complementary and alternative medicine supplements.
It also provides background about the traditional and proposed uses of alternative medicines, warnings and dosage information, as well as reviewing evidence of its efficacy based on clinical research, often with specific references to studies.
5. MyDr. Provides reliable health information on symptoms, diseases, tests, investigations, medicines and treatments. Also provides health tools and calculators.
6. National Prescribing Service. An Australian government website with everything you need to know about medicines, both prescription and over-the-counter.