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Hitting the Bulls-Eye: Accuracy in Online Health Information

By Owen C. Franklin

"There's all this information being put out there by all sorts of people. And right now, there are no checks and balances."

You wake up one morning feeling a slight pain in your chest. You take to the web and rummage through a dozen health sites. One site indicates heartburn. Another indicates a heart attack. Who do you trust?

Finding the needles in the haystack

Thousands of health sites spring from every corner of the web. With the internet's speed and efficiency, it can be tempting to use the first site you come across. Each site, however, uses different resources, authors and safeguards. Each offers a different level of accuracy.

"Most people wouldn't choose their physicians at random," said Robert Min, M.D, an assistant professor at Weill Medical College of Cornell University who has researched the risks of using the internet to find health information. "And it should be the same online. You need to be careful of who you're getting your information from."

Trusting the needles

No author, company or corporation needs to pass any screening test before posting information on the web. Because of this, experimental treatments or unsubstantiated theories can be written as facts.

"There's all this information being put out there by all sorts of people," said Dr. Min. "And right now, there are no checks and balances."

Mistakes can be severe when health is concerned. Inaccurate or vague health information could lead people to make life-threatening decisions.

"A lot of healthy people could be diagnosing themselves with terrible diseases," said Dr. Min. "And other people could misdiagnose their disease and not seek immediate treatment."

It would be terrible, for example, if someone suffering from a heart attack assumed s/he were dealing with heartburn and didn't seek medical attention.

Plan of action

While these risks are serious, the careful internet user can identify accurate health websites. Dr. Richard Rathe, who studies the internet’s application to health industries at the University of Florida School of Medicine, lists three things to look for:

  1. Is the site well maintained?
    Internet users should check a health site's articles and links to make sure each aspect is current. Because healthcare is constantly evolving, it's important for health sites to post current information.

    "If [the information] is very old, or if the links are broken, it could be suspect," said Dr. Rathe.

    Websites that date each article and page can show their users how often information is updated.

  2. What's the address?
    While URLs can seem to be a complex code — there are some key letters to look for when searching for accuracy.

    "If a site is listed with .edu — it comes from an academic institution," said Dr. Rathe. "Those sites are probably going to be more credible than ihatepsychiatrists.com."

  3. Who's accountable?
    Sites that list their writers, editorial staff and management can be a good source. These sites are willingly accountable for their own information.

    "There should be someone who's taking responsibility for the authorship," said Dr. Rathe.

    Site and staff bios aren't simply public relations tools. They can help you gauge the experience and skills of a site's authors.

    Internet users can also research a site's medical authority. Sites that note which articles are "medically reviewed" have medical authority backing their content.

A doctor's voice

As a rule, the best health information comes from doctors. While tech wizards and talented writers can build a well-crafted website, health sites supervised by trained physicians have great resources at their disposal.

"There are a few internet sites that are started by physicians," said Min. "They are a reputable source because they have more reliable information than people who aren't affiliated with the health industry."

Know the limits

While the internet can be a great tool for exploring health concerns, a health site cannot replace a trained physician.

Different diseases share common symptoms, and the proper treatments can vary from patient to patient. Even the most interactive websites can't match personal interaction.

"I think it's dangerous if people use [the web] to diagnose themselves," said Dr. Min. "The internet is quick, but it shouldn't be used too quickly. It should never be used to replace a physician."

Owen C. Franklin is a content producer at savvyHEALTH.com.

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