Finding good health information
Finding good health information
How to find good health information online
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.
Claims about health are everywhere
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.
Fortunately, there are some excellent online resources that help consumers get the information they need.
These questions developed by NPS MedicineWise can help you to decide if the medical or health information you find on the internet is accurate, unbiased and up to date.
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.
You can find out more information to help you make decisions about alternative therapies on our Complementary and Alternative Medicines page.
Tools to Help Identify Good Information
There are a number of great online resources to help develop your ability to assess the value of online information.
Last Updated on 16 January, 2023.