How to Find Clear, Credible Health Information Online

You heard about this great new supplement. It is the ultimate cure for joint pain. Well, you’re not going to buy it based on an ad or a rumor. So, you do a little research online. You find stories of lots of people who have used it and are pain free. Hmm. Maybe it is worth it.

You have been trying to lose weight for months and now the scale won’t budge. You google “weight-loss plateaus” and find an expert that says you can jump-start your weight loss by cutting your calories down to 500 a day. He’s even written a book about it. You think about buying the book but run into another expert who says the secret to real weight loss is bone broth. She has hundreds of testimonials, and you can buy the broth right on her website. Hmm. Which do you choose?

You have been having these weird sharp stomach pains, sometimes after meals. You decide to do a little research to see what could be wrong. 30 minutes later, you are in a cold sweat. Do you have cancer, an ulcer or are you allergic to gluten? Whatever it is, you know it is bad!
Let’s face it. Most of us have researched some kind of health topic online, and there are tons of enterprises out there that count on your research efforts to sell their products. Then, there are other well-meaning health “information” sites that distill information from other health blogs. By the time the info gets to you it is many steps away from the original research and may not have been updated for years.
So how do you find credible, accurate health information online?  We’ve got some answers for you. But first, let’s discuss what is research worthy and what isn’t.

Health Research Dos and Don’ts

Don’t ever research your own symptoms! It’s a recipe for disaster. Only a medical professional armed with test results and information about your medical history can tell you what your symptoms really mean. Trying to figure it out online will only confuse and upset you, which could cause more problems. So, resist the urge to research your symptoms. If something is really wrong, contact a medical provider.
Do look for best practice health information so you can add a healthy habit or two to your lifestyle. Just be sure you are getting your ideas from credible sources (more on that below).
Do fact check claims about supplements. But don’t search for the supplement by name. Supplements are tricky because they are unregulated. Not only do you not know whether the ingredients in the supplement do what sellers are claiming they do, but there is also no way of knowing how much of the active ingredient is in any given brand of supplement. If you really want to understand supplement claims, first figure out what the active ingredients are, and look for research that has tested the effect of those ingredients (on humans!). The folks who market supplements often plant information and testimonials about their products on health websites. Most of the time these are actually ads that look like content. When you are researching supplements do not utilize any site that also sells the supplements through a link. Some may be legitimate, but once money is changing hands, you can’t be sure.
Don’t be fooled by articles that seem to have lots of citations. Many sources of health information try to boost their credibility by citing research from scientific journals. But don’t rely on health articles that seem to distill the information found in those journals. You won’t know how good the information is unless you go to the original studies, and for most of us, those are hard to understand. Many sources of health information misquote or misrepresent research results in order to support a consumer-friendly idea.
Do check the abstracts of original research. When you hear about a study on the news that says wine drinkers or coffee drinkers live longer, that fish oil prevents heart attacks or that sugar is more addictive than tobacco, you might be tempted to check out the original research. It’s not a bad idea with the following caveats:
  • Read the abstract only, if you are not a scientist.
  • Make sure the study was done on humans (the sugar studies often are not).
  • Make sure that the study is double-blind with a control group (to avoid skewed results).
  • Check to see how the study was funded. Researchers must include conflicts if interest in their abstracts.

So, Where Can You Find Trustworthy Health Information Online?

Believe it or not, there is a ton of terrific information out there. If you are not trying to diagnose yourself (and please don’t), here are some trustworthy choices:
1. Government Health Websites: Government-run health websites are usually reliable sources of information. Some key ones include:
2. Renowned Medical Institutions: Many leading medical institutions have extensive online resources:
3. Targeted Organizations: Websites of recognized health organizations can be great resources:
  • American Heart Association
  • American Cancer Society
  • American Diabetes Association
4. Fact-checking Websites: These websites can be useful to verify health claims circulating in popular media or social networks:

The Bottom Line

With so much information at our fingertips, it is almost impossible to resist the urge to seek answers online about things that matter to us, like our health. Marketers use that urge against us in order to sell more products. There are thousands of fake “health” or “consumer rating” websites created every day to trick you into thinking that “too good to be true” claims are backed by science or independent product testers. If you want to look into a health topic online, stick to these rules:
  1. Stick to well-known, independent sources of information.
  2. Be aware of the common ways marketers can fake credibility.
  3. If it sounds too good to be true, it is.
  4. Never try to diagnose yourself by researching symptoms online because it won’t help you and it will scare you.

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