How to make sure a medical website is credible

Before you type your symptoms into Google and convince yourself that you have a rare, incurable disease, make sure your findings are accurate

How to make sure a medical website is credible

Source: Best Health magazine, January 2013; Image: Thinkstock

If you type the name of a disease or condition into a search engine, you will undoubtedly find sites promoting questionable treatments and crazy theories about its cause. Here’s advice from Dr. Gunther Eysenbach, of Toronto General Hospital, who specializes in health research methods on how to evaluate facts that you find online, and the overall credibility of medical websites.

Cross-check the facts

If you learn something critical about your condition on one site, check several other sites to see if they agree.

Check reliability

Evaluate the site using the acronym CREDIBLE as a checklist.

Currency:
Does the information seem fresh, or dated? Check to see when the pages were last updated.

References: Does the site include citations from medical journals to support its claims? If so, are they from peer-reviewed journals, which publish only studies that have been reviewed for accuracy by a panel of experts?

Explicit purpose: Can you easily determine the intentions of the site’s creators? Websites that are trying to sell products may be less reliable than those that are designed simply to present information.

Disclosure of sponsors: Can you tell who paid to develop and host the site? Check the pages ‘Who We Are’ or ‘About Us.’ These identify the people behind the site.

Interests
: Could any conflicts of interest interfere with the site’s objectivity? For example, does the site tout a miracle cure’and then offer to sell it to you?

Balance:
Does the site’s content seem even-handed? Does it describe both the advantages and disadvantages of treatments, for example?

Level of Evidence: How strong is the evidence that is cited? If any medical claims are made, are they backed by references to randomized controlled trials?

Once you find reliable websites, keep a file of your research and take it with you to your next doctor’s appointment. Ask him or her to explain any key point you don’t understand. Rest assured that surveys suggest the majority of doctors today are comfortable with patients doing their own research online and bringing information to appointments. In a 2007 survey, about two thirds of doctors called this trend positive.

This article was originally titled "Find trustworthy websites" in the January/February 2013 issue of Best Health. Subscribe today to get the full Best Health experience’and never miss an issue!

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