Finding Accurate Medical Information on the Internet
With so many medical resources available online, how can a person tell which site will provide the most accurate, honest information?
Publicly accessible medical information on the web usually has one or more of the following critical flaws:
- Lack of evidence base – information does not accurately reflect or derive from current scientific literature
- Lack of adequate context – insufficient background information or perspective provided, making interpretation of material difficult
- Excessive use of jargon – wording of material is unnecessarily complicated, restricting understanding by persons without medical training
- Bias due to financial interests
Of these, problem #4, bias, is likely the most pervasive. The unfortunate reality is that the people and organizations with the most powerful incentives to publish on the web are those that stand to gain financially from your medical decisions. Thus, a significant portion of available medical “information” is actually a form of advertising by commercial entities (hence the suffix “.com”).
A guide to assessing the validity of all websites can be found here: Evaluating Internet Health Information.
Where can unbiased information be found?
Several nationally-based, non-profit professional and governmental organizations support websites containing publicly available expert summary statements and guidelines. These documents, though technically worded, are based on scientific literature and are significantly less subject to bias than commercial material.
How can I access the original medical literature?
The best place to go for reliable information in the internet age is the same resource people have been using for centuries: the library. The National Library of Medicine (NLM) and NIH jointly provide a service called PubMed, which allows the public to search the primary (original) medical literature and read articles in abstract (abbreviated) format: www.pubmed.gov
Similar search results can be achieved with Google Scholar ™, which has a more user-friendly interface: http://scholar.google.com/
Persons without medical training may find navigating original articles overwhelming. Nonetheless, it is essential that all material you read make reference to the primary medical literature – otherwise, you have absolutely no way to gauge its accuracy. For all you know, it may be completely false and misleading
How can I make sense out of all of this?
- Be skeptical. Assume that all medical information you read is false until proven otherwise.
- Investigate people’s motives. Pharmaceutical companies, medical device manufacturers, and other private/commercial medical enterprises (“.com”s) are all trying to sell you something. Ask yourself whether their product or service will actually help you or merely enrich them.
- Make sure that the material you are reading is based on hard facts, i.e. the primary medical literature.
- Ask a doctor. Though patients are increasingly well informed, there is still no substitute for a face-to-face conversation with a physician you trust. Doctors are trained to make decisions based on medical science, and they are the only ones capable of recommending care that specifically applies to you.