The internet is a powerful tool, and for many of us it’s our first point of call when we’re not feeling well or want to find out more about a medical complaint. However, as Donald Trump likes to remind us, the internet is full of ‘fake news’. But how can we sort fact from fiction when it comes to online health information?
Being a Medical Writer, it’s important for my work that any source I cite is credible. There are several things I look for to ensure this, and they are things that we should also all be mindful of when looking for health information online at home.
Who was it written by?
Is the information you’re reading written by a medical professional or recognised expert in the field? Great! If it’s written in a blog or a chatroom, be cautious. Blogs and chatrooms can provide insight into a disease area from a patient perspective, but people are talking from their personal experiences only
Is the content on social media?
Groups on social media can be a great way to connect with people who may be experiencing similar difficulties to you. However, unless the group is funded by an organisation that is carefully monitoring it, it is unregulated and should be read cautiously. As with blogs, people commenting and sharing information on social media sites are sharing things that they find interesting or useful. Their recommendations may not be beneficial for everyone and could even be harmful
Who was the content funded by?
Many pharma companies fund websites to provide people with information about a disease area or medication. These websites are carefully regulated to ensure they’re accurate and unbiased, and are usually good sources of information
Is it endorsed by a recognised charity or governing body?
NHS websites, or websites endorsed by recognised charities or medical associations are excellent sources of information. They can be especially good in helping you to connect with other people who may be affected by the same condition as you, or find support in your local area
When was it written?
Advances in healthcare mean treatment recommendations are constantly changing. Check to see if the website you are reading has a date when it was last amended. If it’s more than a couple of years old, the content it contains may no longer be entirely accurate
Is it country-specific?
In the UK, advertising prescription-only medicines to the general public is not allowed. However, in countries like the US, it is. If you’re on a website detailing specific treatment options, check where it was written. The treatments being discussed may not be licensed for use in the country where you live
Educating ourselves about our health and treatment options can help us feel empowered and more in control. However, we need to apply a little common sense. Googling symptoms and self-diagnosing can be notoriously problematic and I’m sure I’m not the only one who has internet-diagnosed themselves with a tropical illness despite my garden shed being the most exotic place I have visited of late. Luckily there are highly-trained healthcare professionals, and it’s always best to consult with them before getting too carried away by late-night Google panics.
But even when your condition is diagnosed, it’s still important to check with your healthcare team before you follow any advice you have read. This is particularly important if you are considering taking supplements or herbal remedies because drug interactions can occur that can be harmful to your health.
The internet is a powerful resource, but if we want the get the most out of it to improve our health knowledge we need to ensure we are checking the validity of our sources and using the information we find responsibly.