Evaluating Health Information on the Internet

As we look to improve our health, we can get bombarded with conflicting information. Some of the information we find has a few kernels of truth to it but many companies grasp on to one true fact and build an entire marketing campaign to sell a product on it. If you look hard enough you can find “experts” validating anything, including how a junk food diet is good for you. Common sense is usually a good tool to start with when evaluating health claims from the Internet.

Many web sites are promoting or selling something and even if they cite research, their interpretation of it may not take into account the group of people the information may be relevant to. For example an optimal food plan for a young athlete is and should be different than a food plan for a woman over fifty. Results of an exercise program for a one hundred lab rats is interesting but may not be practical information you can use for yourself. Companies often don’t explain the limitations of “research” and as a consumer it can be very confusing what to believe.

Types of Websites

Consider the source of the information. Is the website run by a commercial interests? That is not always bad, just important to know if they are trying to sell you something. Sites that are selling products are .com.

What about .org? Some of these sites are legitimate professional or consumer organizations that provide accurate information, but anyone can obtain a .org designation, so be cautious if you are not familiar with the organization.

Websites run by .gov or .edu usually have more reliable information. They are government or educational sites. Several professionals have reviewed this information before it is posted, and the information is updated frequently. The information on these sites are backed by research.

One good source to start with is Medline. Their information is categorized a few different ways and you can search by health topic and questions related to your age and gender.
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NIH: National Library of Medicine

http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/

Another good source of information is the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

If you want to know the current research on some health program or treatment, like the effects of herbal products on sleep, or the role of Vitamins in preventing cancer, visit the Cochrane Library. They seek independent reviews of treatment alternatives from many different scholars who are qualified to judge the quality of a research study. They are definitely more academic in tone, though.

If you find a health claim on the internet, here are some guidelines for evaluating whether it might be based on research findings.
• Does the piece list the author, and does that author have some credentials that indicate they are “legitimate?”
• Is there a date on the piece so you can determine if the information is up-to-date?
• Are there references to scientific studies and journals?
• Does the article provide evidence from research studies, or only a few case studies?
• Is the piece slanted to one perspective, or does it present pros and cons of a health intervention?