Be cautious with online health facts

April 04, 2003|by LYNN F. LITTLE

It's fast and convenient to access health-related information over the Internet. Indeed, many people go online to seek answers to their health questions. An abundance of online information can be obtained through disease associations, health-care practitioners, universities, pharmaceutical companies and industries that sell health-care products. Anyone can post a Web site on the Internet. With such vast information at our fingertips, it's difficult to know what's credible and what's not.

One way of sorting through the confusion is to follow these principles when judging the trustworthiness of health articles found online: Understand the purpose of the article. The ability to recognize the intent behind an article is the critical first step in being a wise online consumer.

In general, health-related articles found on the Internet are meant to do one of three things - to inform, to persuade or to sell. The most reliable information is found on Web sites created to educate and to inform. Organizations that serve the public interest, such as medical institutions, disease associations, universities and branches of government, back their information with scientific fact and are considered to be the most objective and balanced source of information on health care. It is the best place to begin a search on a health-related topic.


Although many Web pages maintained by medical institutions and universities are far too academic for the general public to understand, several of the nation's top medical schools and clinics have Web sites designed for public use. Web site domains that end with "edu" or "gov" indicate that the source is a university or government agency, and many health associations carry the "org" suffix.

Articles intended to persuade often take a position on an issue and are designed to influence the reader's viewpoint. Individuals and advocacy groups frequently use a Web site to advance a belief or to promote alternative perspectives, treatments or practices not generally known to the public.

Although several of these Web sites provide useful information backed by legitimate research, be wary of sites that base their claims solely on testimonials or opinion. Testimonials may indeed be moving and have some basis in fact. Without scientific evidence, however, there's no way to know that if what people assert can be repeated in different settings and circumstances. Before reaching any conclusions, remember that the purpose is to influence, not necessarily to represent a balanced point of view.

Much online information is simply advertising for health-care products or drugs. Pharmaceutical companies and industries in the business of selling vitamins, minerals, supplements, alternate health products and treatments have all taken to the Internet to sell their products. Many Web sites that are designed to sell are fairly straightforward and can be easily identified. Use discretion when viewing sites that disguise their advertisement as a journal article.

The content of the article usually highlights a disease or disorder, and the product isn't mentioned until farther down the page. These Web sites often list references to professional journals, such as the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). In truth, the information does not come from these sources. Upon close inspection, an advertising disclaimer will be somewhere in the margins of the Web page - in very fine print.

Pharmaceutical companies usually conduct their own research and use their findings to promote their drugs or products. While this research is considered to be reliable, its purpose is not to provide a well-rounded health perspective on a particular disease or disorder. It remains controversial whether advertising in this manner actually helps or hurts consumers. One advantage is that it puts firsthand knowledge on drugs directly into the hands of consumers. Consumers who are influenced by these ads pressure their doctors to prescribe the medication. Brand-name drugs are more costly, whereas less expensive, generic versions often are equally effective. It is always a good idea to get a health practitioner's viewpoint on any drug advertised online or in a magazine.

Look for the author's name and credentials. Dependable Web sites list the author's name and credentials at the end of the Web page. Academic credentials should fit the content and information contained in the article, and the author should be accessible for questions if no e-mail address is given.

Note article updates. Current dates indicate that updates have been made as new information is obtained.

Finally, consider that there is such a thing as too much information. Telltale signs are bewilderment over the amount and type of information, anxiety brought on by self-diagnosis and frustration due to contradictory information. That's why learning to recognize the intent of an article is an important element in finding good information online.

One up-to-date online source of health information - healthfinder is an award-winning federal Web site, developed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services together with other federal agencies. Since 1997, healthfinder has been recognized as a key resource for finding the best government and nonprofit health and human services information on the Internet. Healthfinder - on the Web - links to information and Web sites from more than 1,800 health-related organizations.

Lynn F. Little is the extension educator with Family & Consumer Sciences of the Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

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