How to Find Reliable Health Information Online Without a Medical Degree

Over 70% of internet users go online to learn about their health. Research that a few decades ago only doctors could access can now be downloaded over Starbucks’ WiFi. And because the average doctor’s appointment lasts just 13–16 minutes, many see the internet as a free, convenient alternative to medical advice.

But convenience doesn’t come without costs.

Instant access to health information coincides with an increase in “cyberchondria,” or anxiety about poor health stemming from internet research. Worse, study after study shows online health content is frequently unreliable, inaccurate, or hard to read.

That’s why I want to use this post to teach you a simple test that can help you weed out bad health information online.

The T.R.A.A.P. framework asks you to examine five qualities of any information source: TimelinessRelevanceAuthorityAccuracy, and Purpose.

Any source with its salt will have each of one. Below we’ll look at them individually as well as some red flags to keep in mind.

5 Qualities of Reliable Health Information

“T” for Timeliness

Trustworthy websites review and update their content — and let their readers know.

It’s estimated that medical knowledge doubled every 50 years in 1950. In 1980, it doubled every 7 years. In 2010, doubling occurred in half that time, or every 3.5 years. Researchers now believe that by 2020, medical knowledge will double every 73 days.

Major medical breakthroughs occur every day. Research continues to progress. Web sources should incorporate significant developments in the field or promising options based on sound evidence. At the very least, all health content should be checked regularly in case the scientific consensus has changed.

Keep an eye out for publication dates, when (or if) they’ve been updated, and how recent the research references are.

A good measure of timeliness is 2–3 years. Anything older than that might be due for an update. Some fields like neuroscience and genetic testing change more quickly than others.

Red flags:

  • No dates of publication or revision
  • Dates that are more than 2–3 years old
  • Research that ignores recent medical developments
  • Citation links that go nowhere

“R” for Relevance

Most health-related Google searches return thousands — even millions — of results. There’s no lack of reading material. But most of it isn’t relevant to your needs.

In 2012 researchers studied the quality of infant sleep safety materials on the internet. They found an alarming 28% of 1,300 websites contained irrelevant information. Imagine how much time you’d waste if every third turn on the way to work didn’t go where you wanted!

One of the key sources of irrelevant health advice comes from personal testimony. Our brains are hardwired to believe other people’s stories if we have something in common with them — even if those similarities are as irrelevant as, say, sharing the same name.

It’s hard to ignore promising recommendations, especially when all you’re looking for is answers. But remember: no one’s health journey is your health journey. What worked for one person may not work — and might even prove harmful — for you.

A trusted primary care doctor can help you put web research into the context of your unique medical history. Check out our health research worksheet for ideas on how to talk with your doctor about what you found online.

Red flags:

  • Information unrelated to the topic(s) you started researching
  • Materials that are either too basic or advanced for your needs
  • Personal testimonies based on someone else’s health history

“A” for Authority

You probably don’t take financial advice from your teenager. But would you roll your eyes at investment tips from Warren Buffett?

Probably not. That’s because competence establishes trust. We tend to respect people and organizations whose perspective is reputable, experienced, and insightful.

Yet when it comes to health content, time and again we fall for headlines that grab our attention with exciting, sensationalized claims , many of which lack substance. And then we share it on social media.

The good news is we can assess a website’s authority using some pretty basic research skills. First, take note of the website’s domain extension. Common ones include:

  • .com (commercial)
  • .gov (government)
  • .org (organization or nonprofit)
  • .edu (education)
  • .mil (military)

Government websites like the National Institutes of Health are considered the most credible resources, followed by educational websites. These institutions can access cutting-edge research, and their content is almost always reviewed by domain-specific authorities.

You can learn even more about a website’s reputation by reading their “About Us” page. Try to locate an editorial policy or background on who’s responsible for writing the content. Websites sponsored by nonprofit or research institutions likely have your interests in mind more than those funded by a pharmaceutical or marketing company.

Always be skeptical of websites where the sponsorship information is vague or hard to find.

Red flags:

  • Conflicts of interest
  • Poor reputation in the field
  • No author names
  • Difficult-to-find contact information

“A” for Accuracy

Confirmation bias is a thinking error that makes us more likely to find and believe information that fits in line with our own beliefs. We tend to ignore information that contradicts our view of the world.

If you suspect you have  a specific health problem, chances are you’re going to drift toward content that supports your expectations. People who drink alcohol, for instance, are more receptive to studies that conclude moderate drinking is good for your brain compared to research that suggests the opposite.

To prevent the effects of bias, compare several resources on the same topic to see how they stand up against one another. Accurate health information aims to provide complete coverage of a topic including both the pros and cons of treatment, associated medical costs, long-term outcomes, and admissions of the unknown.

Above all, try not to let your personal assumptions steer you away from quality materials just because you don’t agree with the conclusions.

Red flags:

  • No references or data sources
  • Information that isn’t or can’t be verified
  • Reliance on personal testimonies
  • Opinions pretending to be evidence

“P” for Purpose

If the era of fake news has taught us anything, it’s that many “neutral” websites are anything but.

Sometimes the product being sold is a worldview, like websites that promote the false link between vaccines and autism. More commonly, health websites sell literal products like vitamins and supplements, wonder cures, VIP content, etc. And still other times, you’re the product — your time, privacy, and data.

Stick to websites that promote an educational mission over a commercial one. Government, educational, and nonprofit websites generally want to keep their readers informed more than anything else.

Again, you can learn about a website’s purpose on the “About Us” page or through its mission statement. Both should be easy to locate and provide an obvious purpose so that you know what to expect from the site’s content.

Another way to evaluate purpose is by looking at a website’s advertisements. The presence of advertising or sponsored content isn’t a credibility-killer. Be wary, though, if you can’t distinguish between paid advertisements and health content, or if the advertisements promote pseudoscientific topics.

Red flags:

  • Excessive promotion of a product or service
  • Claiming there’s a “cure all”
  • Persuading readers to adopt the writer’s personal biases
  • Advertisements that mimic impartial content or promote pseudoscience

Websites Can’t Substitute for Medical Care

Even the most trusted health websites make mistakes. Same with doctors. But talking to an experienced medical professional about the information you find online allows you to exert control over your health while staying grounded.

That’s why we at HealthWeb Navigator publish reviews of health-related websites written by health experts. On our website, you can see which resources healthcare providers trust the most — and which ones they avoid like the plague.

Want to learn more strategies for finding high quality health websites on the internet? Watch our recorded webinar:

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Welcome to the NeedyMeds Voice! We look forward to presenting you with timely, provocative pieces on healthcare reform, patient advocacy, medication and healthcare access, and other health-related news. Our goals are to educate, enlighten, and elucidate; together, we will try to make sense of the myriad and ongoing healthcare-related changes in the U.S. today.