How reliable is online health information?

The internet has created a revolution in how we access health information and, increasingly, healthcare. But it can be difficult to tell the difference between reliable online health information and medical information that’s not just wrong, but potentially harmful. With nearly two-thirds of Brits turning to Dr Google before a healthcare professional, the reliability of health websites and app content is vital. So, exactly how trustworthy is consumer health information and how can we even tell what’s credible and what isn’t?

What is the need for reliable health information online?

Health at our fingertips: in theory, this level of easy availability and control for users can be positively life-changing, especially in a pandemic or post-pandemic world. But, just as the internet can empower people with the right information, it can also do the opposite. This is a particular concern for those already feeling vulnerable and desperate for a solution to their health problems.

There is no doubt that a wealth of great information, websites and digital tools exist that enable people to take greater control of their health and empower them with the right information. But the amount of unreliable or even harmful information that exists has led to the internet being a wild west of health advice.

Anyone with basic knowledge and funds can set up a site full of seemingly credible medical advice that looks more authoritative than many official medical sites. And, with social media promotion knowhow they can deliver their content straight into the hands of an unsuspecting target audience.

This wouldn’t be such an issue if we weren’t so susceptible to believing unreliable online health information. Many studies point to internet users trusting fake information online without too much questioning.

And a recent survey found that Brits actively search for health information over seeking advice from a clinician and healthcare provider. This can potentially lead to not only misdiagnoses but anxiety over non-existent health conditions.

What is being done to ensure the reliability of health websites?

It is because of concerns over misleading or downright fake health information that Google is reforming its search ranking algorithm. In a bid to protect the public from wild west cowboys, the world’s most popular search engine aims to put the most trustworthy physical and mental health information sites at the top of its results.

Google is focusing on what it terms ‘your money or your life’ (YMYL) sites to determine page quality in terms of their criteria of expertise, authority and trustworthiness (EAT). This is because sources of health information and sites relating to finance, wellbeing and safety have the biggest potential to have a negative influence on users.

Social media sites like Facebook are now also actively trying to detect misleading information. But caution is still advised when looking for information online, especially when it comes to health.

Finding reliable information about health on the net

Despite the cautionary notes, the internet can be a great resource for health information with a number of reliable, accurate and easily understood health resources. With Google’s EAT criteria in mind, users can examine any health-related information they find for expertise, authority and trustworthiness themselves, by asking these simple questions:

Who?

The first question relates to attribution, specifically whether any health-related information is backed up by medical evidence and/or approved by medical professionals or experts. Many reliable online resources cite their scientific sources at the bottom of a page and state if an expert has reviewed and approved the healthcare information.

Why?

Related to the question of ’Who?’ is the necessity for users to examine the intent of online health resources. Support groups can be beneficial but beware of unmonitored opinions on health topics. Is the site purely or mainly a selling tool? This is a particular pitfall with dietary advice sites. Users of these are bly advised to find out whether they’re being sold supplements or a diet programme. Compare the intent of a commercial diet site with a site like the NHS or any gov.uk site – or, in the US, a site like the National Institutes of Health (NIH) – whose purpose is to communicate public health advice.

When?

It’s also key to find out when the health information or its sources were written, reviewed or updated. If nothing else, the Covid-19 pandemic has shown us how rapidly what we know about health and medicine changes. In any context, scientific research is constantly updated. Older research can be immensely valuable but it’s always wise to check if there is anything that is more up to date.

What is the future of online health information?

While misplaced trust in inaccurate health information is an issue, the public treat the internet very differently in 2021 compared to even a few years ago. There is a growing tendency to view online sources with caution and an awareness that online health information requires interrogation.

More and more people are using guidance like the steps outlined above to ensure that the online health advice they’re consuming is accurate, up to date and relevant to them. This kind of critical thinking around online information is only set to increase as awareness grows. Meanwhile self-regulation by tech companies like Google and Facebook improves.

But health information has to be both trustworthy and be seen to be trustworthy. This is the where the expertise of agencies like Thrive comes in to ensure that online health information is not just reliable but effectively communicated and easily understood.

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