The highs and lows of ‘Dr Google’
The limitations of the internet as a reliable source of health information were recently highlighted through the experience of new dad, Nick Ridgman.
“My wife and I had a five-month-old baby. When she was very young she wasn’t feeding all that well, and we did lots of searching for information about how much milk babies should be getting and when.”
“Unfortunately, we found that even apparently reliable sources of information were disagreeing with each other. It was very hard to know who to trust, and to find a ‘single version of the truth.”
Unmonitored health forums can also be scare-mongering places for parents seeking trustworthy health information, as mother of two, Alice Windsor, explains.
“When I fell pregnant with my first baby, I instantly started Googling every single symptom, niggle and feeling. Obviously, being pregnant was new to me and I found it a great support to read pregnancy-related health information and forums.”
But, using the internet as a search tool for sourcing trustworthy pregnancy-related information also meant reading stories about miscarriage, birth defects and still birth, adds Alice.
“As a newly-pregnant woman, desperate for everything to be OK with my baby, I couldn’t help but read all the negative stories as well as the positive ones. It started to make me slightly paranoid and anxious.”
“Talking to friends and other mums-to-be, I discovered this was a common occurrence, and started to realise how dangerous some online information can be, if used in the wrong way, especially via forums.”
Turning to the internet for advice during a vulnerable period in her life taught Alice a valuable lesson. “From that point on, I made a conscious effort to stick to reputable health information websites, such as national organisations and charities, and steer clear from anything that wasn’t from a recognised, well monitored source.”
“Online forums can be good, but it’s important to realise that most people who use them are not medical professionals and readily share incorrect or misleading information.”
While there is good reason to be cautious online, there are also resources like Bupa’s health information and expert charity websites that are set up well to provide you with the facts you need – completely for free. “After being diagnosed with coeliac disease,” says Graham Pembrey, “my consultant recommended that I visit the Coeliac UK website to find out more about the condition. It was hugely reassuring to read their authoritative, straightforward information, and arm myself with the knowledge I needed to look after myself.”
Four signs of good health information
It can sometimes be difficult to distinguish a trustworthy website from an unreliable one. Here are four key signs you can look out for.
1. The information is up-to-date
Check if there is a published or ‘last reviewed’ date. Ideally, the information should have been produced or updated within the last three years. Medical science is constantly evolving and the consensus can shift quickly. The best websites will keep on top of regularly updating their pages.
2. It’s clear and easy to understand
It shouldn’t feel like you’re reading an academic journal article! The best providers of health information for the public will write in simple, straightforward language and avoid any complicated medical jargon.
3. Experts have helped to produce it
Check for signs of expert involvement – it might be a doctor who is listed or thanked for their input on the page, for example. This shows that the information been checked by a relevant medical professional before being published.
4. The claims are backed up
Many reputable websites will give details of the original sources that their facts come from, so you can see that the claims are based on good evidence. And these should always be dependable research sources, like large scientific studies or clinical guidelines, rather than personal blogs or newspaper articles.
Join the conversation
Do you have any stories about how online health information has helped you, or tips about what makes health information good for you? Head to Twitter or Facebook and use #HIW2019 to join in with the discussion.
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