Guide to online health advice

With colds and flus upon us, who can you trust for reliable information online? We give you the low-down.
 
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01.Introduction

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It's estimated about 60-80% of people use the internet to search for health information. However, among all the great sites on the web are some not-so-great ones and a large amount of unregulated information. 

Significant issues with quality, accuracy and completeness of information are common complaints.

We've recommended some sites and apps for for your mobile device that are well-regarded by health and medical experts, and they're a good starting point. 

However, if you want to look further afield, there are some basic questions for identifying reliable health information so you can tell the good from the bad.

For more information about medical conditions, see our General health section.

Who is responsible?

Find out who is providing the content and evaluate their authority to do so. The "About Us" page on most sites should provide this sort of information. 

Find out whether it’s a government body (such as the Department of Health), 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 just an enthusiastic lay person. 

Government bodies, medical professionals' associations, relevant institutions and universities may be more reliable options because they have higher levels of accountability.

Are they contactable?

Can you contact the organisation or the webmaster? Ideally a physical address and phone number will be listed, or at least email addresses. Be wary if the site provides no contact information or if you can't easily find out who runs the site.

How recent is the information?

Health and medical information is constantly being revised and updated as new research adds to current knowledge and understanding, so it's important to check information is recent and up-to-date. 

Look for clues about when the information was posted or updated. This could be a date saying when the text was created, posted or updated. If there's no date, try some of the links – if they're broken the page might be quite old.

Are they qualified to give advice?

The"About Us" page can tell you whether there's 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 and so on – to feature on health information websites. But that doesn't necessarily mean they're qualified to advise on the topic at hand. 

For example, information on vitamin C and its purported benefits for preventing colds and curing cancer is often linked with the work of “Nobel laureate Linus Pauling”. However, Pauling’s two Nobel Prizes had nothing to do with vitamin C, colds or cancer. 

Similarly, someone with a PhD can use the title "Dr", but if their PhD is in English literature, they're not a medical doctor qualified to advise on managing atherosclerosis.

Online forums can provide a useful support network of people with similar medical conditions or concerns, and contributors or moderators shouldn't be expected to have formal qualifications. 

However, valuable as such forums are for comfort and support, they can be a source of rumours, myths, misleading information and quackery, so double-check advice for treatments and management.

Is the information reliable?

Be clear about whether the information is fact or opinion. If fact, are sources noted or acknowledged? Are these sources reputable ones such as government statistics, World Health Organization data or papers published in peer-reviewed medical journals? 

Claims such as “ground-breaking research has found...” should be accompanied by a reference to research groups, study leaders or a paper published in a peer-reviewed journal so you can verify the findings. If the information appears to be opinion rather than fact, is the writer qualified to give it?

Who's funding the site?

Check to see if the site is funded by government agencies, charities or foundations, donations, a business or commercial advertising. Ads should be clearly defined. It's not uncommon for drug manufacturers to produce websites about conditions related to the medications they sell, and promoting the medication itself. That's not a bad thing, but it's worth seeking out information about the condition and treatment options from other sources as well.

What's the privacy policy?

Health information should be confidential. Read the privacy policy to see what information they're collecting, how they're using it and who they're sharing it with. Be wary of providing personal details such as home address, date of birth, mother's maiden name and credit card details.

What about complementary and alternative medicines?

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 – at least to some extent. 

Because complementary and alternative medicines and therapies aren’t regulated as tightly as conventional pharmaceuticals, some companies and practitioners promoting their use tend to overstate the benefits and downplay risks and uncertainties. 

This is particularly so online, where anyone anywhere in the world can say just about anything they wish extolling the virtues of their products and services with little fear of retribution.

There are several warning signs to watch for – and these apply to all health and medicine sites – such as claims that one remedy will cure a variety of illnesses, that it’s 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. 

As always, check whether the site is trying to sell you something.

 
 

 

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