How do I find credible health info online?

girl working on computer with her father

Where do you go for medical advice and support in caring for your child? You are increasingly going digital, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts. Seven in 10 people like you looked online for health information last year and found this information through search engines like Bing and Google. This strategy might be a good first step to find out what is available, but may not tell you whether it’s information you can trust.

We are all amazed with the power of digital solutions to get us information – quickly, with minimal or no cost, and in the comfort of our homes. It feels like the Wizard of Oz is sitting behind our laptop screen. We type in a question and get an answer. When looking for an answer to a trivia question or what toaster to buy, the consequences are not great if the information is inaccurate or misleading. For information about your health or that of someone you love, it could be life-threatening. 

Digital search results are determined by algorithms – all of the processes and methods that make sure that answers people “like” are shown first. Sadly, we all know that much of medicine is not what we “like” – getting immunizations, checking our weight, limiting snacks – and there are many people who are happy to tell us what we want to hear. A secret about search is that it can be manipulated. A huge industry manages digital content to ensure that algorithms find their content and place them first (to promote a product, a cause, a viewpoint, or a celebrity).

Still more challenges occur if the information comes from famous or popular people. Many people might “like” these celebrities, follow them and what they say, not because they know about medicine, but because of their star power. Let’s face it: We might love our real-life doctors, but people who play doctors on television or celebrities who talk about health can be much more interesting.

So, it makes sense that families can get information from the Web that conflicts with what their healthcare provider might say (for example, about vaccines or treatments for medical conditions).

To begin to address this unmet need for evidence-based digital health that is accountable to health outcomes, the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia recently launched the Digital Health Initiative. In addition to providing credible web content through our family of websites, our Center supports research on development and evaluation of digital health solutions. We know that the motivation behind the digital health developers is largely good, but we want to assure that the digital health promise of improved health is actually realized.

In the meantime, “internet searcher beware.”

Here are some questions parents should ask before tapping into websites and other digital health tools to help manage their children’s health:

Is it from a reputable source?

  • Look for sites sponsored by a medical school or university, nonprofit healthcare organization, or the US government. For example, use information from web addresses that end with “.gov” or “.edu.”
  • Look for citations to journal articles and medical literature or a peer-review process for content and recommendations. Especially when you are getting advice from someone you do not know (most of what you get on the Web), you want to ensure that there is evidence and credibility behind their advice.
  • Look for any commercial interests or conflicts. The source of funding for the website should be explicitly noted.

How current is the information? Online or mobile health information sources should include when the information was posted or last reviewed. Out-of-date information may not be incorrect, but it’s best to rely on newer sources for the most up-to-date information.

Is the advice consistent with what your child’s healthcare provider recommends? Beware of recommendations for particular products or medications, especially if the organization behind the digital health tool is sponsored by a service or company or other product manufacturer. Be sure to discuss any conflicting advice with your child’s healthcare team.

Do you have to share personal information in order to access it? Unless you understand the policies under which it will be used and are comfortable with the risk involved in sharing it, do not share personal information with digital health content providers.

Also, it’s very important not to judge websites by appearance alone. Many companies have their Marketing Departments create them, with expensive budgets behind them. But is the information found on these attractive sites credible? It takes a considerable amount of time and research to provide reliable health information…even in the digital age.


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