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Search This, Not That—How to Find Reliable Health Info Online

July 10, 2014

All it takes is a click of the mouse or a swipe of the finger to be able to search for health information on the Internet. A search engine can bring back thousands or even millions of hits on any given topic. Scrolling down the list of results, you might see some pages that are written by a hospital or a drug company. Others may be written by a patient who is battling a disease, and some might even be written by a middle school student for a school project.

Much of the information you find may be reliable and incredibly helpful. On the other hand, some of that information might be full of factual errors, outdated material and even biased opinions. For those of us who aren’t medical professionals, it can sometimes be difficult to tell what’s reliable and what’s not.

Wikipedia is not an authoritative resource

In a recent study published in the June 26, 2014 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers compared drug alerts and warnings issued by the Food and Drug Administration with those drugs’ entries in the popular encyclopedia-like site: Wikipedia. Surprisingly, they found that 36 percent of pages about drugs were not updated within a year of an FDA-issued warning. That means that more than a third of all pages about drugs contained outdated information!

The reason that Wikipedia is not a reliable source for the general public is because the information it provides is usually written by the general public—without any editing or fact-checking. Sure, some entries may be written by experts, but as this study shows, they may not always contain the latest and greatest evidence.

As healthcare librarians, we work to ensure that Orlando Health patients, family members and professionals are guided to information that is up-to-date, accurate and approved by experts. That’s why the Clifford E. Graese Community Health Library was founded—to give patients and family members a place to go to find good, quality health information.

As you might imagine, librarians who work within hospitals don’t spend much time checking out books to people anymore. Now, we spend most of our time searching the Internet and guiding people to the information sources that are the most reliable and trustworthy. It is extremely important that everyone involved—including doctors, patients and the general public—use the best research available to make informed healthcare decisions. Imagine if your doctor made a decision based on the outdated drug information from a Wikipedia page! You wouldn’t want your doctor to do that, so neither should you.

Know the "5 W's"

If you, as an informed healthcare consumer, would like to search for health information online using a search engine, we recommend the “5 Ws” approach to evaluating a website. The 5 Ws are those typical questions that we all know—who, what, when, where and why.
  • WHO is sponsoring the website and writing the information? Is it a government agency, a nonprofit group, a commercial business or an individual person? Look for an “About Us” page. There is a big difference between a site that says, "I developed this site after my heart attack" and one that says, "This information on heart attack was developed by health professionals at the American Heart Association." Use sites written by recognized authorities.
  • WHAT is the quality of the site? All websites are not created equal. Does the site have an editorial board made up of experts on the subject? A site on osteoporosis whose medical advisory board is composed of attorneys and accountants is not medically authoritative. Are there claims that sound too good to be true? Quackery abounds on the web, so get a second opinion—check more than one site. Rely on medical research, not opinions or testimonials.
  • WHEN was the site written or last updated? The field of science and medical research is constantly changing, so look for recent dates that say when the information was last reviewed. If no dates are given anywhere, you may want to think about using a different site.
  • WHERE is the contact information? A reliable site will give names, a physical mailing address and phone numbers to receive questions and feedback. If only an email address is listed or you can’t easily find out who is responsible for the site, read with caution.
  • WHY was the site created? Is it for education, fundraising or research? Is the site trying to sell a product? Do advertisements clearly say “advertisement” or “from our sponsors?” Beware of potential bias.

Help is available—and free

If you’re looking for reliable, up-to-date health information, we invite you to stop by our library any time. The Graese Library is open to Orlando Health patients, guests and the Orlando community. We welcome the opportunity to provide our guests with information that they can use to discuss their health with their doctor.

If you’re unable to stop by our library in-person, we also take questions by phone and email. Our librarians are happy to email you or send you a packet of information by postal mail. We even deliver information to patients and family members right in their hospital rooms.

For help finding health information, please contact the Graese Community Health Library by phone (321.841.4636) or email, or use our online Ask-A-Librarian form below.