Scouring the internet to help you get to the bottom of your stomachache or that sudden rash is commonplace these days. Seven out of ten people say they look for health information online, according to a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center. While Google can be a useful tool, relying too heavily on the web for health info is risky—how do you know if the information you’re getting is reliable?
Almost half of students across Canada who responded to a Student Health 101 survey said they question the reliability of a health information source at least twice a week. Here’s how to know what to look for in a health website and recognize red flags so you can sort the best from the bogus.
On the infographic below, click on each sign to learn how to tell the difference.
Is this health site trustworthy or unreliable? How to tell the difference
"Eating lots of veggies helps protect against cancer, studies suggest" vs. "Superfood in a pill! Amazing results! Totally sciency! $29.95/month"
- Uses plain language
- Acknowledges uncertainties and unknowns
- Based on a meta-analysis of multiple studies
- Cites perr-reviewed, published medical studies
- Content largely created within the last five years
- Cites studies involving lots of human participants
- Packed with scientific-sounding jargon
- Breakthrough! Miracle cure! Exclamation points!
- Few sources
- Biased funding source
- Sources generally older than five years
- Cites studies involving a dozen mice
What to look for
Trustworthy language isn’t overly technical. But it shouldn’t be “dumbed down” to the point where it isn’t accurate anymore. “Individuals who aim to educate the public should be able to explain medical concepts using plain language, so that everyone understands the information they’re trying to transmit,” says Dr. Pierre-Paul Tellier, Associate Professor at McGill University in Québec.
“According to the findings, eating nuts on a regular basis strengthens brainwave frequencies associated with cognition, healing, learning, memory, and other key brain functions. In other words, they help boost your brain power.”
Red flag: Scientific-y jargon
You don’t want the terms to be so technical that you can’t understand them—if there’s no clear explanation or understanding, or if it sounds like your kid sister is playing doctor, look for another resource.
What to look for
The info should acknowledge when research is incomplete or conflicting. “There’s no one good solution to behaviour change. It’s important to identify and acknowledge any known limitations,” says Dr. Matthew Kwan, Assistant Professor at McMaster University in Ontario. Unbalanced articles are often trying to sell a product or belief.
“The groundbreaking study found that adopting a confident posture can actually change your brain chemistry; however, similar studies have been unable to replicate those results so far.”
Red flag: Miracle cures and price tags
Miracle cures and so on are usually a sales pitch. Don’t fall for it. “Any article claiming a miracle cure that isn’t already a part of the evidence-based clinical guidelines set forth by a medical society should always be considered suspect,” says Dr. Niket Sonpal, Associate Program Director of the Internal Medicine Residency at Brookdale University Hospital and Medical Center in New York. On that note, also look out for price tags. “Online health information should always be free—if an article is charging you for free information, it’s likely off,” Dr. Sonpal says.
“Accurate science usually doesn’t come packaged with a clickbait headline like ‘You won’t believe…’ or ’18 simple tricks that will surprise you.’”
—Elliece R., third-year undergraduate, University of Regina, Saskatchewan
“[I look for] journal studies, sources quoted, and reputable and unbiased experts.”
—Alex L.*, second-year student, Mount Royal University, Alberta
What to look for
Ideally, you want the content to be based on a meta-analysis or systematic review. These analyze data from many studies on the same topic. Meta-analyses are much more comprehensive and broadly applicable than any individual study. “This renders the information more reliable since it’s then based on larger numbers,” says Dr. Tellier. “If a website references one of these studies, you can be confident they’re transmitting reliable information.”
“A meta-analysis of 37 studies conducted over the past five years concluded that practicing mindfulness and meditation does in fact help reduce depression.”
Red flag: Few sources
Reliable health information is based on large, broadly applicable bodies of research. If the majority of the sources are the work of the same researcher or only apply to one very specific group (such as elite runners or grandmas in rural areas), tread carefully. “A healthy list of citations is important, but it can come from all literatures, and not just medical studies,” says Dr. Kwan.
“A red flag includes sources that don’t have acknowledged and approved scientific evidence proving its benefit.”
—Monica L., fifth-year undergraduate, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Newfoundland and Labrador
What to look for
If it isn’t based on a meta-analysis or accredited review, the health content should at least be based on a peer-reviewed study done by researchers affiliated with universities or other respected institutions, such as the Public Health Agency of Canada, suggests Dr. Kwan.
“According to a joint research effort between McGill University and McMaster University, regular aerobic exercise promotes longevity.”
Red flag: Biased funding source
Be wary of research sponsored by an organization that has an interest in the outcome (e.g., a study on pop and obesity sponsored by the soft drinks industry).
There should be no obvious conflicts of interest involving the author(s) or the organization(s) that sponsored the research. Additionally, the content shouldn’t assume that correlation equals causation. For example, researchers may find that people who do trampoline workouts have more joint problems. But that doesn’t mean trampolines cause joint problems—those jumpers might also be marathon runners.
“I trust a health source if it’s an unbiased (not trying to sell me anything) source, and if it tends to promote information that’s verified by extensive research and studies.”
—I.L., second-year graduate student, University of Victoria, British Columbia
What to look for
All or most of the content has been created within the past five years. “Medical literature is very dynamic—thousands of new articles are published annually on a variety of subject matter. Therefore, if the topic being discussed is hot, new articles will be coming out regularly,” says Dr. Tellier. “Websites should have a date stating when the information was last reviewed and updated.”
“Scientists have been studying the benefits of exercise on depression since the 1970s, but a 2017 study that explored running as a treatment for depression made the case even more compelling.”
Red flag: Old sources
Some websites cite older information. This is OK if it’s a reputable source, like a university medical school, and it’s referencing a landmark finding, such as “smoking causes cancer.” Make sure the older research is paired with recent studies that expand upon or refine it. “If old studies are the only ones cited, that’s concerning, but if it’s a mix, that’s usually fine,” says Dr. Sonpal.
What to look for
Ideally, the research cited will have involved a large number of human participants. If the findings were based only on a dozen mice, the information can’t be applied to humans yet. “Animal studies should always be considered the beta version of clinical information—they’re the step before human studies,” says Dr. Sonpal.
“To test the effects of sleep deprivation on school performance, researchers recruited 500 university students and had them keep sleep journals for two months.”
Red flag: Cites studies using animals (especially small sample sizes)
“What happens in a rat won’t necessarily happen in us, especially if it was just one rat—we need to see it happen in larger studies,” says Dr. Sonpal.
- User-friendly website about sexual health and birth control, including infographic guides to birth control options, STI prevention, and consent
- Topics include: “Gender identity,” Emergency contraception,” “What is sex?”
- Designed for young adults of any gender and sexuality
- From the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada, a professional health organization that creates national guidelines on sexual health
- Includes guides to health conditions, health terminology, and drugs, written for the general public
- Disease-specific guides and infographics include plain language summaries (e.g., “Stroke in Canada,” “Measuring positive mental health in Canada”)
- Information from reputable sources including national and international agencies
- From the Government of Canada
- Information on a wide range of health topics, summarizing recent research
- “Health research in action,” a featured section, addresses how the most recent health research is helping Canadians across the country
- Sample topics: “Researchers fight cancer by activating dormant genes,” “Decoding the brain-body communication system”
- From the scientific research arm of the government, with 13 institutes across Canada
- Information on a wide range of health topics including food recalls, Canada’s food guide, specifics about the health care system, and research
- “Latest News” is the first section that shares recent publications and announcements
- Sample topics: “Laws and regulations,” “Statistics,” and “Cannabis initiatives”
- From the Government of Canada
- Information on a wide range of health topics, tools clarifying myths vs. facts of diseases, and suggested treatment for common Illnesses
- Searchable content organized by topic and drug
- Sample content: “Toe fungus treatment options table,” “Binge eating disorder fact vs. myth,” “Cutting your cancer risk”
- Written by the MediResource Clinical Team, accredited by URAC
- Evaluates the evidence on medical treatments and products, especially alternative and complementary options, and topics in the public eye
- Searchable content organized by topic and treatment
- Sample content: “Positive Psychology and Health,” “Medical Marijuana as the new herbalism,” “Chiropractic Gynecologist Offers Dangerous Treatments and Misinformation”
- Written by medical professionals advocating for the highest standards of science in health care
- From the Society for Science-Based Medicine, a US nonprofit organization
- User-friendly information on a wide range of diseases, conditions, and treatments
- Tools for healthy living and managing chronic conditions, including general health guides (e.g., “Healthy Habits”) and modules (e.g., “I’m freaking out! Condom use 101”)
- Interactive elements include videos, podcasts, and community discussions
- From The Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre, the largest medical and science research facility in Canada
- Information on a wide range of diseases, conditions, treatments, and healthy living
- Interactive elements include a symptom checker and online communities for questions, support, and advice
- “Behind the Headlines” guides readers through the science behind mainstream health coverage
- Sample content: “Can beetroot juice give you wings?,” “Get Running with Couch to 5k,” “Why am I tired all the time?”
- From the National Health Service, UK
- An independent network of researchers, professionals, patients, caregivers, and other people interested in health
- Summarizes the latest research to help you make the best health choices
- A nongovernment organization that promotes an “ethical standard” for quality health care information
- Websites can apply to be HONcode certified and will display an HONcode badge if they’re approved
- HONcode isn’t in consistent use across the internet, but if you see it on a site, you can count on that site to have reliable information
- Consistently rated one of the best hospital systems in the US
- Information on diseases, symptoms, treatments, procedures, and medications
- Symptom checker feature
- From the US National Library of Medicine
- Information on various health topics, medications, and supplements
- Videos on topics such as surgery and anatomy, as well as interactive tutorials
- Games, quizzes, and calculators (for BMI, breast cancer risk, etc.)
- A government organization, part of the NIH
- Information on different types of cancer, including the latest clinical trials
- Statistics for different types of cancer, including overall rates and demographic breakdowns
- Information on treatment, prevention, coping with cancer
- From the UK’s National Health Service
- Information on diseases, treatments, and healthy living
- Symptom checker feature
- Hosts online communities for questions, support, and advice
- Each month’s “online clinic” answers questions on a particular health topic
- “Behind the Headlines” guides readers through the science behind health news
- Online, disease-specific communities where over 600,000 members share stories and advice on over 2,800 conditions
- Free place to discuss symptoms and treatment options and ask experts questions
- Sells anonymous health data to companies and nonprofits developing health care products to help them understand the real-world experience of disease and treatment
- Collection of over 24 million medical- and health-related studies from the National Library of Medicine, life science journals, and online books
- You can search by topic, type of study, publication date, and free full-text availability
- Evidence-based content on a variety of health topics
- Reviewed by health and wellness experts
- Tailored to your school
Matthew Kwan, PhD, Assistant Professor, McMaster University, Ontario.
Niket Sonpal, MD, Associate Program Director, Internal Medicine Residency, Brookdale University Hospital and Medical Center, New York.
Pierre-Paul Tellier, MD, Associate Professor, McGill University, Québec.
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National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. (2013). Finding and evaluating online resources on complementary health approaches. Retrieved from http://nccam.nih.gov/health/webresources
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Patients Like Me. (2015). [Website]. Retrieved from http://www.patientslikeme.com/
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