Health is a topic that affects us all, and since the birth of the internet, health advice and information is everywhere. We are all guilty of using “Dr Google” to check a symptom, and many of us read daily about the latest health scare or wonder drug splashed across the front pages.
But how do we know if this information is accurate? The internet gives us instant information at the click of a mouse, but much of that information is contradictory, biased, outdated, or just plain wrong.
The importance of accurate healthcare information
Information and advice about our health directly impacts our behaviour and often has real-world implications for our health and wellbeing. With so much misinformation about health on the internet, it’s more important than ever to be selective about what we believe.
That’s why patient-led, informative websites like Health Prem are the right place to start when looking for accurate health-related information.
Where not to look for accurate healthcare information
While it may be great for sharing photos of your pets and getting into a keyboard battle with someone on the other side of the world, social media isn’t the best place to find accurate health information.
Misinformation can spread in seconds and claims about miracle weight loss pills, conspiracy theories about autism and vaccines, and inaccurate and often harmful advice are a growing problem in the world today.
In 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) listed vaccine hesitancy (refusal or reluctance to be vaccinated due to safety concerns) as one of the top 10 threats to world health. The drop in the number of children being vaccinated is at least partly due to misinformation on social media and has led to the re-emergence of serious diseases such as measles and whooping cough.
Support groups on social media, however, can be beneficial and many people find it helpful to talk and share ideas with others going through the same thing. It’s important to bear in mind, however, that everyone is different. Even if you have the same condition, you may not have the same medical history, or be having the same treatment as someone else. What works for them, may be ineffective or even dangerous for you.
Where to look for accurate healthcare information
So is all health-related information (including this article) garbage? Fortunately not! It is possible to find accurate, reliable, up-to-date health information on the internet. You just need to know where to look.
Here are some questions to ask when looking for accurate information about your health.
Is the source authoritative?
Authoritative sources are sources that are widely regarded as reliable and trustworthy by experts in the field. When accessing health information, government websites, educational institutions and nonprofit organisations are a great place to start.
Some of my go-to websites when researching health information include:
- NHS Inform
- World Health Organisation
- Health Prem
- National Institute of Health
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
In addition, many charities and non-profit organisations provide authoritative information on specific conditions and treatments, including:
- Diabetes UK
- British Heart Foundation
- Cancer Research UK
When choosing a website to access health information, it can be helpful to look at the URL, or website address to see what type of organisation it is. A URL ending in:
- .gov.uk is owned by the UK government
- .edu identifies an educational institution
- .org is usually a nonprofit organisation or charity
- .com/co.uk generally indicates a commercial website
Is the information up to date?
Health research is always growing and developing and advice seems to change with the weather. Are we eating carbs this week? How much sleep should I be getting? Is the new COVID variant cause for concern?
When looking at “new” health information, check that any studies cited are recent and not years out of date.
Is it impartial?
Look at who owns or set up the website and what its purpose is. You can usually find this information on the About page. Next, look at the purpose or aim of the website. Is it to inform and educate or to sell a product or service?
If a website is owned by a business or company, the information it provides may be geared towards selling a product for that business and may not be impartial.
The aim of any trustworthy health information website is to provide accurate, up to date, useful information rather than to sell something, so bear this in mind when reading what they have to say.
Is the information backed up by good science?
When I say “good” science, I mean peer-reviewed research that has been published in a scientific or medical journal. Peer review is a process to ensure the information is significant and up to date, and any conclusions are safe and accurate.
Health information should always cite its sources, either within the article, or at the end. Check that these sources are authoritative, and that any research, studies, or clinical trials are peer reviewed and up to date.
While it is possible to find accurate, safe and up-to-date health information online, the best place to get health advice remains from a healthcare professional such as your GP. Unlike health information websites, your GP has access to your medical records and can advise you based on your medical history, any allergies you may have or medications you are taking.
Besides your GP, you can get health advice from NHS 111 online, or by calling their helpline on 111. Your local pharmacist can advise on medication and common ailments such as coughs, colds, rashes and minor allergies. NHS walk-in centres, urgent care centres and minor injury units are usually staffed by experienced nurses or GPs and do not require an appointment.
When accessing health information online, always use an authoritative source, like the ones listed above. Always check with your GP or healthcare provider before following any advice you’ve found online, even from a reputable source.