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Finding Trustworthy Health Information on the Web
Information about our health —diseases, medications, science breakthroughs — is increasingly available through the Internet. A search via Google (the most popular search engine in the US), on the keyword ‘Parkinson’s’, produces 8.9 million results!
Because of this, we may find ourselves turning to the Internet on a daily basis for health information, while we see our doctors only a handful of times each year. While finding information online empowers us to become better healthcare consumers, the reliability of that information can vary greatly. So where should we look for information on Parkinson’s disease (PD) — and more importantly, whom can we trust?
The first rule is to never substitute online information for seeing a doctor. Use online resources as conversation starters or as supplementary sources of information, not as primary sources of medical or diagnostic information. That said, here are some tips for navigating health information available on the Internet.
What Type of Website is It?
It is important to know what type of website you are using, in order to understand its point of view. Are you reading an educational public health message … or a sales pitch for a product? Here is a sampling of the types of sites you may come across:
Blogs: are usually written by one person about his or her experiences and thoughts. Blogs may start conversations among a group of people who have similar interests or experiences with PD, but are not usually written or reviewed by health professionals. Before you act on a healthcare tip, check with your physician.
Commercial sites: can be informative about a particular company or product, but will likely present information about only the products of the sponsoring company. To get a complete picture of the market, visit other sites. Before buying a product or medication, ask your physician if it is appropriate for you.
Nonprofit sites: can be good sources of health information, but look for signs that a site is a true nonprofit (rather than a commercial site posing as a nonprofit-like entity) and that it has good financial standing. It is a good idea to start your research by contacting nationally and regionally known groups, such as PDF. For further evidence, check the bottom of the webpage. Sometimes the branding of a website and its URL (its web address, such as, www.pdf.org), can be misleading, making a site appear as if it’s a charity. However, the bottom of a site will typically carry truthful information about who owns and operates it. You may find that the owner of the site is actually a corporation — not a nonprofit.
ListServs: are systems of email communication that allow you to address an email to one simple email address, but reach all members of that list (who normally have a similar interest) at one time. As with blogs, listservs may be a great way to compare notes with other people with Parkinson’s; however, the emails are typically not written or reviewed by health professionals. Again, check with your physician before acting on any advice you receive.
Is the Source Transparent?
Here are some questions to ask to assess if a source is trustworthy.
• Who is the author?
• Does the site have ‘About Us’ and ‘Financial Information’ accessible?
• Does the site allow you to provide feedback or participate?
• How does the site present advertisements?
How Accurate is the Information?
Try to ensure you are reading the most up-to-date information by asking:
• When was it updated?
• Is the information in context?
• Does the source site their sources?
Online health information can better prepare us for visits to the doctor and keep us all informed; however, as any good site will tell you, this information should never replace your doctor’s advice. Remember, the Internet is a great resource, but information we find there is no better than the credentials of those who contribute and we need to approach it warily and with skepticism.