Individuals have more access to health information than they’ve ever had before. A simple Google search on a specific health topic can yield advice from hundreds of different sources. Although access to the information has improved with the inception of the internet age, the resulting concern is often the quality and reliability of the various information and contributors.
One recent survey discovered 60% of all adults have looked up online health information at least once. Meanwhile, another study reviewed multiple online health-related studies and concluded that online health information aimed at consumers is often biased, inaccurate, or otherwise flawed.
So why is it that so many health websites publish misleading and inaccurate information?
Some entities operating health-related sites have a hidden agenda behind the information they’re providing to the consumer. Drug companies often finance groups promoting awareness for previously unrecognized conditions to literally create consumer demand for their new, expensive drugs – a tactic known as disease mongering. For instance, according to Dartmouth Medical School researchers, restless leg syndrome didn’t become a diagnosed disease until a drug company first developed a drug to treat it. Furthermore, a recently published study in the American Journal of Public Health concluded that many health advocacy groups taking funding from drug companies fail to disclose this fact to consumers.
Other entities operating health-related websites might be providing misinformation because they choose to disregard scientific evidence that disputes or contradicts whatever health belief they’re promoting. For example, despite the exhaustive research that led to the U.S. Institute of Medicine’s 2004 finding that there’s not a relationship between autism and childhood vaccinations, many supposed health websites are still scaring parents into thinking autism can be caused by vaccinating their children against potentially deadly diseases. One can run into a similar situation with Morgellons disease. Despite the current scientific consensus that Morgellons isn’t some new, unexplained dermopathy, but rather a manifestation of delusional parasitosis, many health websites are still making claims that the etiology is a parasitic infection.
The Solution. It’s simply not practical or affordable for an individual to make a doctor appointment for every health question they come across. So the solution isn’t to not use the internet for health questions or information, but rather to use it selectively. Here are two tips:
- Before trusting a health-related website’s information, ask yourself the following questions:
- Is the information current?
- Where did the information come from?
- Who’s contributing and controlling the website’s content?
- Only use websites that have been certified by a quality rating organization, such as the Health On the Net Foundation (HON), or that have been otherwise deemed trustworthy. HON’s search engine will only show results from websites providing objective information that’s consistent with sound scientific evidence, such as by the Healthfinder.gov website. The nonprofit website FamilyDoctor.org, which is supported by the American Academy of Family Physicians, is another reliable source of medical information for consumers.
The internet can help individuals become more informed about their health and more capable in making some decisions about their health care, such as if they should get screened for a particular cancer based on symptoms they may be experiencing or their medical history. However, one should never use the information on any health website, regardless of its reliability, to self-diagnose and/or self-treat.