Use of internet has increased rapidly over the last few years. This has affected people in many ways, both good and bad. And medical and health fields are no exception. In fact, more people search for health and medical information than any other subjects. This just indicates that people take their health seriously and are ever searching for information to improve their health and well-being. But for many of us, even logging into an internet site is often daunting. We get lost with the volumes of information, advertisements, and promotions which are all eye-catching and very difficult to resist. This may lure readers to sites which are neither useful nor serve any purpose. Besides, the information may be loaded with medical jargons, terminologies, and other medical ideas which are hard to understand as a non-medical person.
So, how do we get the right information? And how do we know which one is right when there are piles and layers of information to choose from? To make the matter worse, the information are often contradicting or even misleading.
In this article, I will briefly highlight some important points that can help readers in choosing the right health and medical information from the internet. I urge the readers to ask the following questions in analysing a medical website, and the answers they get can determine the quality of information on the website.
Is the website owned by the government, educational institutions or private companies? In general, most websites owned by government are not biased and are promoted in the interest of the public. Majority of privately or company owned websites are developed for promoting products for sale or for other vested interest.
Who is the author of the site? Is the author a doctor, medical scientist, health professional or any expert in health and medical field? Or is he/she a patient who has suffered an incurable condition for a long time, such as, multiple sclerosis patient or cancer survivor? Is the author a well-known figure or has he/she published any other credible articles or books? The information on the website will be more authoritative if the author does not have any personal interest or the site is not sponsored by commercial organizations. Also the site that has the contact details of author or publisher gives more weight to the site than those which do not have such information.
Is the content up-to-date? When was it last updated? Does the content show references to other authoritative sources? Is the information evidence-based? Is the language clear or is it loaded with medical jargons, terminologies or other ideas hard to understand? People love to read articles which are easy to understand and written in plain layman’s language. Simple demonstration or easy to understand diagrams and charts help people understand health and medical terms better.
Does the website promote holistic approach to health?
This is an important factor in choosing the right website for health and medical information. The site should provide complete and in depth information on the subject of interest. For example, if a website is about breast cancer, the readers should be able to get answers to questions such as:
What is breast cancer?
Is there a cause of breast cancer?
What are the risk factors for breast cancer?
Does it run in family?
How is it diagnosed and treated?
What happens if a patient refuses treatment?
Does the site give information on complications of treatment or follow up schedule?
Does it give information on any alternative modes of treatment?
What about prevention and screening for breast cancer?
Does the site address other issues related to breast cancer including psychological and sexuality issues, family and financial hardships etc?
Does the site provide links to other sources of information for help and support?
For example, a website on “Quit Smoking’ should have Quitline telephone numbers, counselling services for smokers, or contact details of health professionals involved in quit smoking programs.
Is the information specific to a country or a region?
Many websites provide information that is relevant to a particular country or region and are not tailored to the international readers. So, obtaining such information from a website which is country or region-specific may not be relevant or accurate. For example, immunization schedules differ between countries, level of health care services and types of treatment differ, and even drugs usage differs. It is therefore important to identify whether the information on the internet is for readers in a particular geographic area or country or it can be used internationally.