Today, we have access to more information than ever before. Thanks to the Internet, the world is almost literally at our fingertips. If you have a question, all it takes is a few keystrokes to google it, and voila!
But, wading through all this information can be tough. With so many sources claiming so many answers and so many people claiming to be experts, how do you know if the information you read is correct or “fake news”?
Human beings are biased. There’s no way around that. But with a little diligence, you can learn to be an educated, informed, and critical reader of health information.
Some sources are more reliable than others. That BuzzFeed article may have a low word count, attractive gifs, and snappy lingo, but is it a good source? When evaluating whether or not your source is reliable, think about the following questions:
What are the author’s credentials?
Most authors on the Internet have not done extensive medical training. Yes, they may be able to write thought-provoking, cleverly worded articles, but a lack of medical education on their part means the information you read may be inaccurate.
A step up from casual health writing is content that has been reviewed by a medical professional. You can often find these types of articles on health-centered websites like WebMD and Healthline, and they are often easy to read. However, unless you’re an experienced medical professional trained in the subject matter, it can be difficult at times to guarantee how rigorously they were reviewed.
What is the publication?
Casual health writers tend to write for websites aimed at entertaining, not educating, such as Bustle, Elite Daily, and BuzzFeed. These websites are best read for entertainment, not research.
News sources like The New York Times or HuffPost may be a little more authoritative in the sense that news writers are often more trained in the field of journalism. They may be more skilled at research and understanding medical information themselves. They may even quote directly from an original study, but keep in mind that unless you read the study yourself, you lack its context.
Reliable Sources for Medical Information
So are there any well-known reliable online sources? Yep!
Sources from Public Institutions
For general health information, public institutions are a solid choice. Firstly, these institutions tend to hire the most accomplished professionals in their field in order to keep research up to date. The government also relies on accurate data from public institutions to function.
Some American public health sources of high authority include:
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- MedlinePlus, created by the National Library of Medicine
- National Institutes of Health (and affiliated departments)
- The U.S. Food and Drug Administration
Other English-language public health resources worthy of exploring include:
What Doctors Read
Science is constantly evolving. For doctors, studying their field doesn’t stop at med school. They must continue to stay up-to-date with the latest findings. Resources with medical professionals as a target audience include:
These resources have both plain-language summaries and academic articles, allowing both consumers and medical professionals to get the information they need.
Other sources that don’t fit neatly into these categories may be trustworthy. For instance, publications dedicated to science education may be more rigorous in their editorial process and may offer more accurate information. Some of these sources might even possess authority indicators like a .edu domain name, which shows that the information came from a university.
To determine the authenticity for a website, you can look it up on Media Bias/Fact Check for an analysis on its biases (such as whether or not its left-leaning or right-leaning) and on its fact-checking accuracy.
You can also cross-reference a claim across multiple high-quality sources. If all the sources agree on the claim, it is likely a scientifically-backed, accurate claim.
Studies written by university researchers and medical professionals are probably some of your stronger sources. While mainstream journalism often cites these studies, journalists may describe studies with misleading, sensationalist wording. For best results, read the original paper.
Academic papers are not easy to read, but with a little practice, you too can read like a scientist! To give you a head start, here are some terms you may encounter. You can find more information about these terms here.
Methodology is an important part of any scientific research paper. There is a big difference between a study that tests 10 individuals and one that tests 100. There will always be a margin of error in every study. After all, you can’t possibly survey every person in the world who, for example, is diagnosed with depression. However, it’s more accurate to extrapolate a conclusion based on 100 individuals to an entire population than it is to extrapolate from 10.
So, in general, if you read a study that uses a very small sample of subjects, it may be less accurate than a study that uses more people.
Randomized Controlled Trials
Randomized controlled trials (RCTs) are considered the most respected when it comes to testing whether a health treatment actually works. In an RCT, study subjects are picked based on a number of criteria (e.g., being an adult females with asthma) and then randomly assigned to be part of one of two groups. The control group receives either no treatment whatsoever or a placebo, and the intervention group receives the treatment being studied.
Using very similar subjects randomly sorted into two groups yields certain advantages. The chance of the two populations being remarkably different in their characteristics is minimized. Therefore, results of an RCT are more likely directly caused by the different treatments rather than by an inherent characteristic of the subjects, such as sex or age.
If an experiment yields marked differences between two groups receiving different treatments and those differences were not believed to be by chance, it is considered statistically significant.
Calculating statistical significance requires some mathematical kung-fu, but as a reader, you just need to look for something called the “p-value.” P-values under .01 are considered statistically significant. P-values under .005 are considered extremely significant while P-values of 0.05 are deemed borderline significant.
If you read in a study that drinking coffee can increase your chances of a heart attack by 400%, you may feel alarmed if you enjoy your morning brew. When used in a news headline, such a claim can definitely cause a caffeine addict to click the headline.
Understanding the context of risk is important. Read more than just the headline of any sensationalist-sounding news article. If, for example, the risk of a heart attack is 1 in 1000 for people who don’t drink coffee, your increased risk of 400% merely means your chances of a heart attack are 4 in 1000, which isn’t that bad.
Some research papers have stronger arguments than others. Here are a few things to consider.
Anecdotal evidence does not equal evidence.
Always take anecdotal evidence with a grain of salt. Some studies are merely case studies of a single patient. It’s dangerous to draw conclusions like “coffee can give you a heart attack” if the case study only describes one individual that had a heart attack after drinking coffee.
Anecdotal evidence often occurs in real life. For example, your friend might claim that a new skincare product magically clears their acne. This does not necessarily mean the product is right for you. Moreover, your friend’s healed acne could be due to something completely different (a change in diet, for example).
You’re biased too.
No matter how smart and impartial you think you are, you’re also biased. Confirmation bias means people tend to look for evidence that supports their view. So no matter how compelling a study is to you, if it shows unreliable testing methods to prove the result, you should give it a more critical eye.
When in doubt, ask a professional.
Googling symptoms can be tempting, but you should never, ever take information on the Internet as medical advice. You should also never attempt to diagnose yourself with an illness. Diagnosing is more than simply looking up symptoms and matching them to your own.
There’s a reason why medical professionals go through so many years of training. The human body is a complex machine. When diagnosing your illness, doctors don’t just listen to your list of symptoms. They use sophisticated medical devices, lab tests, and individualized information like your age, sex, and medical history to make an educated diagnosis.
But professional care is expensive!
Of course, seeing a medical professional in the United States probably calls for a few bucks. Sometimes, you’re not sure if it’s worth the trek and the dollars spent. Thankfully, insurance providers and hospitals throughout the country often offer free helplines staffed by trained nurses. These nurses can give you professional insight as to whether your symptoms warrant more serious attention.
Prescription drugs are also notoriously expensive in the United States. If you’ve been prescribed medication, don’t avoid it just because of its cost. Find more affordable medication online at a licensed international and Canadian pharmacy referral service. You could be able to save up to 90% on costs!
Does this mean you should never google medical information? Of course not. Learning about health can be valuable and enjoyable. Gimmicky articles like “8 Reasons to Eat a Plant-Based Diet” may not be scientifically sound, but they can be valuable in other ways. You may be inspired by a very skilled writer to incorporate more vegetables in your diet. However, remember to read everything critically. Kale might be good for you, but the chance of it curing cancer is slim.