Assessing health information

Take care when using popular media to learn about healthcare.

There are many sources of health information on the web, in magazines and newspapers. How can you tell which sources are credible and which are not based on fact?

It can be a challenge to assess the credibility of a source because health information changes all the time. New research is published regularly. In addition, there is often more than one way of treating a condition, so medical opinions may vary. Michigan State University Extension recommends these tips for assessing health information.

Consider the source

Information that is published in a research journal, in print or on the web, should tell you who wrote it. Is the person knowledgeable about the subject? What credentials does he or she have? Who does the individual work for, or for whom do they conduct research?

In the case of medical information, is the source a medical institution, such as a hospital, clinic, or university? Those are reliable sources. Government health agencies are credible sources of information as well; Centers of Disease Control and Prevention and National Institutes of Health, for example.

The web address of a publication can also provide a clue as to its identity. Here is a list of common URLs:

  • .edu: This tells you that the information has been published by a university.
  • .gov: This is a governmental agency
  • .org: This is a non-profit organization or agency
  • .com: This is a for-profit business or organization

Just because a business or organization is for-profit doesn’t mean it isn’t presenting credible information. However, you should be cautious; they may have a product to sell.

Look for accuracy

If you’re reading about a study in a medical journal, note the size of the sample that was studied. Was it large or small? Has the study been replicated by other researchers with similar results? Do the authors acknowledge limitations to their research and do they point out the need for further study?

If you’re reading information from a source that is reporting about a research study, realize that you’re reading someone else’s take on the work that was done. Are you reading that person’s opinion of the research, or are they presenting it in an unbiased way? Do they quote the study’s authors or other experts in the field in the article? Some news articles may just skim the surface and not provide the depth of information on a topic that can be found in a journal or on a university or governmental agency’s website.

Another thing to consider when looking for accuracy is when the information was published or when the web page you’re reading was last updated. Information can change often and you may not be reading the most recent findings.

Be wary of information you read that has an anonymous or unnamed author. The same goes for articles that are touting a particular product. Some authors may have a bias about a particular treatment or product. Is the author promising claims that seem too good to be true? Are those claims backed by evidence? Read carefully and continue your search for information if only one alternative is discussed. Also, read with caution any claims from individuals who may have had success using a particular product or treatment. This success may or may not apply to your situation.

Blogs and chat rooms have few checks in place that verify the accuracy of the information being provided by users. You may want to confirm what you’ve learned from the site with your doctor or another reliable source.

Finally, how is the grammar and spelling? Errors in those areas can suggest that the information may be coming from a less than credible source.

Be sure to discuss your questions and options with your own health care provider. It’s great to do your own reading, however its best to weigh your decisions with a professional.

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