When it's time for you to learn more about your diagnosis or options for treatment, then the Internet should be one of the first places you go. The breadth and depth of information is astounding, almost overwhelming, sometimes highly accurate and useful, and other times totally worthless.
A smart patient knows how to find the information she needs, how to determine what is credible, reliable and objective, and recognizes when it's time to discard or ignore the information that is phony, and may be dangerous.
You'll want to follow the guidelines below to find the information that will be most helpful to you. A master list of best Internet health resources is also available.
Guidelines and Best Practices for Using the Internet to Research Health and Medical Information
- Remember that anyone can publish anything they want on the Internet, true or false. It's up to you to determine which information is true and credible.
- Trust your intuition. Like the old adage, if it seems too good to be true, then it probably is. Stay as objective as you can.
- Stick with well-respected health websites for the most credible and objective information.
- Always find at least a second reference to confirm your findings. Find a third reference, too, if you have time. There are few exceptions to this rule (pointed out in the resources listed.) But in general, if you can't find the information duplicated in more than two or three references, then it's questionable at best.
- Learn to separate fact from opinion. Sometimes this is difficult because the evidence that exists may be minimal. For example, a doctor may suggest a treatment for you based on his opinion and experience, while studies and evidence may show another treatment works more often. This is not to suggest that opinion isn't just as valuable as fact. Its value will be determined by who is providing the advice. It's important that you know the difference between fact and opinion when you're studying treatment alternatives.
- Analyze any advertising to help assess the site's credibility. Advertising by itself isn't bad, unless it skews the information on the site. For example, here on About.com you will find that all advertising is very clearly marked as such. Further, we guides never have any idea what advertising will be put on the site, and therefore, none of our writing for you can be colored by the advertising found on the site.
But that is not true for many health websites. Their sole purpose is to help promote whatever it is they make or sell. Their "suggestions" and advice will steer you toward their products, or, the products they make, their single brand, will be the only one promoted on the site.
- Stay clear of pharmaceutical or device websites because they are not objective. Not that they might not have good information on them - many of the pharma developed websites are very slick and do contain some good information. It's just that you don't know which information to trust. For example: a company that manufactures and sells a diabetes drug will provide links all the latest research that shows how good their drug is. But they certainly won't let you know how another drug company's product can help you. Nor will they tell you about problems that have cropped up with their products. Or, if you want to learn more about robotic surgery from the company that makes the robot, don't expect to find research results that show that for many kinds of surgery, there is no benefit to using a robot at all.
One problem with pharma and device manufacturing websites is that sometimes their involvement in developing the site is hidden. (A clue to its objectivity all by itself!) You may see nothing that indicates right away that a drug company put that site online, but if you dig a little deeper, you'll find it. Scroll to the very bottom of the homepage, or study the "About Us" or "Contact Us" page to see who put the site online.
- Testimonials are suspect. If you find a website that quotes various patients about the effectiveness of a treatment or therapy, then you can't be sure those testimonials are real. There are some ways to learn from the thoughts of patients (for example, through Blogs and Wikis, and Support Groups and Forums), but see #1 above as your first line of review.
- Make sure the information you find is the most current available. Sometimes you will find that studies conflict each other, or newer information trumps older information.
- If you want to diagnose yourself using the Internet, you may be able to do so if you follow a smart protocol.
- Review unusual findings, and review any information that will influence your decisions with your doctor. There are specific guidelines for how to share that information. Follow them so you don't insult your doctor.
Once you understand how to get the most credible and reliable information possible from your Internet research, it's time to take a look at what resources are available for your use.