It’s becoming increasingly critical to question and verify the myriad of health information that we consume each day.
The problem with most health information available on the internet is that it’s not always reliable or accurate. Truth is, it may seem quite difficult or downright overwhelming to separate fact from fiction.
Whether or not false health information is spread from a place of ignorance, misinformation or deceit, the consequences are undeniable.
Fortunately, there are several ways that you can evaluate the accuracy of health information. This article will provide you with the best tips to identify the most credible health sources.
Before we start, here’s a surprising piece of information to keep in mind:
A focus group of 37 participants concluded that most persons were very successful in finding answers to their search queries relating to health. However, only a few participants took notice or could remember the source of the information.
Moreover, no participant usually check the ‘about us,’ disclaimer or disclosure statements (Eysenbach & Kohler C, 2002).
"I think that only daring speculation can lead us further and not accumulation of facts." - Albert Einstein
Criteria to evaluate the accuracy of health information
Taking a closer look at what you read will ensure that you get your health information from reliable sources. Actually, these are the key points to consider when determining if health information is accurate:
- The source of the information
- Potential conflicts of interest
- Evidence and relevancy
- Date of publication
"Information is just bits of data. Knowledge is putting them together. Wisdom is transcending them." - Ram Dass
Evaluate the source of information
Firstly, when evaluating health information, it’s important to determine if the information is from a credible/reputable source. This should include reviewing the expertise and authority of the author.
If an article makes medical claims, it should have scientific facts. And remember, not all references are the same. Preferably, the sources and studies should be peer-reviewed by independent scientists in the field to ensure safety and accuracy.
Check for potential conflicts of interest
To evaluate the accuracy of health information, always be aware of potential source of bias. As such, you should consider if the author or website has a personal, professional, economic, political, religious or other type of agenda that may influence what they write.
This doesn’t mean that that the information is inaccurate only because of the author’s affiliations. However, regardless of the writer’s expertise, always check for objective and unbiased facts.
Read between the lines. Also, try to determine if the author deliberate excludes some key information.
Essentially, when evaluating health information, always read the fine print and check the footnote of the website for important notes or disclaimers.
Look for evidence and relevancy of research
To access the accuracy of health information, check the quality and quantity of evidence it contains.
Additionally, it’s crucial that you determine how relevant the research is to what the author is saying. This is particularly true if the information is controversial.
Also, consider if the article includes different perspectives on the topic. In fact, health information that includes multiple views will help add perspective and provide a comprehensive overview.
"The goal is to transform data into information, and information into insight." - Carly Fiorina
Check the date of publication
Next, always determine whether or not current advancements in science have been taken into account. For instance, if an article was written several years ago, there could have been many advances in research that the author did not consider.
This is particularly relevant in the the areas and topics that are quickly evolving and changing.
List of questions to determine the accuracy of health information
In essence, the best way to determine if information is accurate, trustworthy and reliable is to ask these questions:
- Does this article include scientific data or opinion?
- Are the sources or references reliable?
- Do they have a track record for accuracy in their field?
- Are there any red flags in the article?
- What are the author’s affiliation to the particular product or service?
- Do they have any possible biases or financial gain that directly relates to the health information?
- What are the different perspectives on this topic?
- How accurate is their information. Consider their qualifications, background in science, education level, history of peer reviewed publications and references?
- When is the date of publication of the article?
- How frequently does the author update their information?
Identifying red flags in a health article:
A red flag is any article refers to information that is suspect or seems too good to be true. These include:
- Exaggerations, unnecessary claims and misleading recommendations.
- Controversial topics with inadequate or no research.
- Information without scientific proof.
- Substantial contradictory evidence.
- Litigation/lawsuits against the product or service in question.
Remember, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is!
Related: The cause and solutions for mistrust in healthcare
Why is it important to evaluate health information?
Often, data spreads more readily when it’s controversial. As such, you need to be increasingly knowledgeable and intentional when it comes to digesting and applying the data you consume.
Unfortunately, false health information can often be quite convincing.
Notably, determining the accuracy of health information is important because you should never base your decisions on facts that are not scientifically supported.
In fact, misleading and erroneous health information can make you sick – even to the point of having life threatening consequences.
Undeniably, social media platforms contain a wealth of information. Thus, post isn’t meant for you to disregard most articles you see online.
But rather for you to be cognizant of everything that you need to consider when making important decisions about your health.
Finally, when in doubt, it’s always best practice to talk with your doctor or healthcare professional. At the very least, trust your instincts.
Characteristics of credible sources of health information
For sources of health information to be reliable, they must have 5 key components:
- Scope of Information
- Depth of evidence
"The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge." - Stephen Hawkingsr
Find out what the disclaimer contains
A disclaimer is a statement that clearly states the publication’s biases on any topic. It will also highlight any financial affiliations that the author has with a particular product or service.
As such, a disclaimer will help people understand the risks and limitations of the article or product.
Identify the author’s expertise
The author must prove authority by having credentials or personal experience that make them knowledgeable in the related field. In some cases, the author may be a not be a health professional.
However, the person does substantial research and the article may even be reviewed by the appropriate health professional before publication.
Notably, looking at the author’s expertise doesn’t mean that personal opinions aren’t valid. However, they should be clearly stated as such.
Discover the scope of the health information
The scope is the degree to which a health article covers the aspects related to the topic. Also, this includes the quality and relevancy of the content.
For instance, articles that are too broad end up including irrelevant information. Conversely, narrowing down the scope can cause valuable information on the health topic to be excluded.
Evaluate the depth of evidence
The depth of evidence relates to how much scientific research has been done on a particular topic and what kind of results were found by those scientific studies.
Scientific data is information that comes from systematic study using rigorous procedures. As such, scientific research can highly contribute to the quality of health articles.
Analyze the credibility of the health information
Lastly, credibility relates to the trustworthiness associated with the author’s reputation, history of articles and other scientific references.
If an article has in-depth content with evidence from credible sources then it is likely to be reliable and trustworthy.
"Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family" - Kofi Annan
Final words on assessing the accuracy of health information
The information you are given can be life-saving so always make sure to verify the source. Unfortunately, it is too easy to be misled and misguided.
However, when it relates to your health, this error is even more critical. I’m glad that you took the time to get informed on how to determine if health information is accurate. Now, it’s time to put that knowledge into practice.
Related Post:9 reasons why health research findings differ.
Do you know anyone who has been misled by bad advice? Let me know in the comments below.
The facts behind common health myths and sayings
There are so many myths and sayings that circulate about health. As such, it can be quite difficult to determine what to believe.
Some of it may come from old-fashioned remedies passed down throughout generations. Others are simply personal opinions that are backed up by no scientific evidence.
Fortunately, this post separates the facts from fiction in regards to common health myths and sayings. Read more
Why is knowledge about health care important?
Knowledge about your health and personal wellness is fundamental.
In fact, it is linked to your ability to make choices. For example, knowledge about various diseases makes it possible for you to take certain precautions or even seek treatment if necessary.
In fact, people who know more about their health and personal wellness are generally better able to improve their quality of life. You can be one of those people. Read more on how knowledge and action are vital for wellness.
Eysenbach, G., & Köhler, C. (2002). How do consumers search for and appraise health information on the world wide web? Qualitative study using focus groups, usability tests, and in-depth interviews. BMJ (Clinical research ed.), 324(7337), 573–577.
Kunst H, Groot D, Latthe PM, Latthe M, Khan KS. Accuracy of information on apparently credible websites: survey of five common health topics. BMJ. 2002 Mar 9;324(7337):581-2.