Consumer/Quality Insider: Searching for Health Information on the Web
Rand: This is Healthcare 411 for the week of February 28, 2007. Healthcare 411 is produced by AHRQ, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. I’m Rand Gardner. A non-profit research center called the Pew Internet & American Life Project studies impact of the Internet on the daily lives of Americans. The effort has produced a number of reports about searching for health information on the Web. One of those reports found that while about 80% of people who search the Internet are looking for health information, only about 25% of them check the source of that information. A second Pew report stated that almost 60 percent of people who relied on the Internet during a health crisis said something they found online was the single most important source of information for them. But it’s not always easy to tell quality health information from poor information. Healthcare 411’s Debra James spoke recently with AHRQ Director Doctor Carolyn Clancy about finding reliable information on the Web.
Debra: Dr. Clancy, how do you know if the information you’ve found online comes from a reliable source?
Dr. Clancy: The best way to identify a reliable source of information is one that is very clear and transparent about where that information comes from. If they are, for example, citing scientific studies or point you in the direction of getting additional information, and are very even-handed in the way the information is presented, the likelihood that what they’re presenting is reliable. Some sites will be very, very clearly in favor of one treatment or diagnostic option than another, and that should signal a little warning sound in your brain. They may be right and it could be that what they’re telling you is absolute truth, but if anyone tells you for many medical conditions, there’s only one treatment or one solution, you might begin to start asking questions. Some sites, as well, are there and they appear to give you a nice overview of a condition, but if you read closely and carefully, you’ll notice that they all keep pointing you back to one commercial product or solution. Again, that commercial product may be terrific, but what you’d really like for reliable information, is to know that it’s based on the best possible scientific evidence and the sites that are reliable will make it very clear where they got that information, what their references are, why they’re telling you what they’re telling you.
Debra: How can you tell if a Web site is reliable or not? Should the site have particular information on it perhaps a "seal of approval" of some type?
Dr. Clancy: There is not a specific seal of approval. There’s not little star that pops up and says this is a really good site. In general, government sites and sites that are sponsored by non-profit organizations are likely to provide reliable information, but many other sites may as well. Of great interest, there are many who believe that consumers are smart enough to figure this out over time, so often times consulting with friends or family can be helpful. And your best guide for the Internet is actually a librarian. Many people think of librarians as being your guide to books on the shelves and card catalogues, but they actually are the navigators for the electronic world of information as well.
Debra: Many people looking for health information on the Web during a health crisis may simply be looking for ANY helpful information, and really aren’t sure what to look for. Do you have recommendations about where to start looking for information so your search is productive rather than frustrating or confusing?
Dr. Clancy: There are a number of disease organizations for example, the American Heart Association, the American Diabetes Association and many, many others that have terrific Web sites, and they take their responsibility to making sure that their members and the public are well informed and kept up-to-date on scientific advances very, very seriously. A librarian either a medical librarian at a hospital, medical school, or other similar institution or a librarian at your local library can be also an incredibly helpful guide in helping you identify what are good sources of information, what are likely to be reliable, and so forth.
Debra: Do you have any particular recommendations for people who are looking for health information on the Internet?
Dr. Clancy: In addition to organizations that are focused on a specific condition or disease, there are many other sites that can be helpful to you as you’re searching for information online. In particular for health, the Department of Health and Human Services has a site called healthfinder.gov. That site has information that’s very helpful itself, but also serves as a point of entry and access to many, many other Web sites that are really wonderful. For information about navigating the health care system, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality’s Web site also has information specifically focused on consumers and addresses such topics as how to choose and use and insurance plan, where you might go for information to choose a best hospital, nursing home and so forth, and that address is ahrq.gov.
Debra: What other advice do you have for people looking for reliable health information?
Dr. Clancy: The good news is, there’s a lot of terrific information out there. The slightly less good news is, there’s just a lot of information and stuff on the Internet and people can feel a little bit overwhelmed. If you read something or stumble on a site that you don’t know how reliable it is and they’re telling you something magical, like take this pill which is completely harmless and almost free and you’ll immediately lose fifty pounds, the chances are that your initial instincts and responses are probably right. At that point it would be good to consult someone who’s more expert at searching, whether that’s a librarian, a friend, or family member.
Debra: Dr. Clancy, thank you for your time today.
Rand: That’s it for this week. The Pew reports can be found at www.pewinternet.org. Other podcast conversations with Doctor Clancy are available through Healthcare 411. Healthcare 411 is produced by AHRQ, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. For Debra James, I’m Rand Gardner. Please join us for the next edition of Healthcare 411.