Self-diagnosis on the web is dangerous – here’s why.
- Your computer is missing more than a lab coat; it also lacks the diagnostic reasoning that goes on in your doctor’s head.
- Your search can induce panic as it can lead you to worst case scenarios. It may be better to see a doctor early than engaging in the web with fear and anxiety.
- The web is great way to compliment your doctor’s diagnosis, not replace it.
- News stories often overstate the findings of a scientific study.
- The amount of information can be confusing and overwhelming.
- Health information is constantly changing as a result of new research and because there may be different valid approaches to treating particular conditions.
Although there is no simple rule to determine the validity of the information on the internet, there are some useful guides that can be used to assess its credibility and accuracy.
Is the Source Credible?
Ideally, information should have an identifiable source or an author. In considering the credibility of the source, ask yourself whether the particular source you are reading is likely to be fair, objective and lacking in hidden motives.
Take care to examine the credentials of the source. Credibility is generally enhanced if it is provided by a medical institution, an entity that brings together medically knowledgeable professionals, or a government health agency. Knowing that a publication has undergone peer review by a panel of professionals in the field also can add to the credibility of the information.
Having the publisher’s or author’s contact information listed in the form of a mailing address or phone number also can add to the legitimacy of the information.
To summarize, when assessing credibility, consider the following:
- Who published the information?
- Who are the authors?
- What are their credentials?
- Do the authors have a hidden agenda?
- Is the information peer reviewed?
Is the Information Accurate?
When assessing the accuracy, try to determine whether the information is supported by evidence from scientific studies, other data or expert opinion. The most reliable evidence comes from randomized controlled studies. If you receive information from a secondary source such as an Internet site or a newspaper article, keep in mind that you are relying on another person’s interpretation of the data. Is the information based on evidence from a study, on expert opinion or is it merely the opinion of the writer?
If you need to make an important medical decision, substantiate the information you receive with information from a doctor and other credible sources.
To summarize, when assessing accuracy, consider the following:
- Is the information based on scientific evidence?
- Is the information supported by facts?
- Is the original source listed?
- Do other sources back up the information?
- Is the information current?
Information that has no identifiable publisher or author should not be relied on, unless it is backed up by information from other sources that meet the criteria for credibility. If the purpose of the information is primarily to sell a product, there may be a conflict of interest since the manufacturer may not want to present findings that would discourage you from purchasing the product. If you suspect that the intent is to sell you a product, consider getting additional information from a more neutral source.
Be skeptical of sensationalist claims of a “secret cure” or a “miraculous result” that no one else has heard about and that is not backed by evidence. Keep in mind that the experience of one individual does not necessarily apply to you.
Also, bad grammar or spelling errors indicate poor quality control and may suggest cause for caution.
To summarize, be skeptical of information when you find these red flags:
- The information is anonymous
- There is a conflict of interest
- The information is one-sided or biased
- The information is outdated
- There is a claim of a miracle or secret cure
- No evidence is cited
- The grammar is poor and words are misspelled
In reviewing information, use your judgment, recognizing that evaluating quality is something of an art. Although very few sources will have all the criteria for credibility and accuracy, familiarizing yourself with these criteria can help you sift through information more critically and will provide important cues that will help you differentiate between good quality and poor quality information.