Health literacy at its most basic level is how well people can understand and act on medical information. Logically, a big part of health literacy is the ability to carry out research. Perhaps a physician didn’t explain something clearly enough, or maybe he or she gave a patient a choice between different treatment options. Whatever the case, online resources are an immense part of health literacy improvement.

Before jumping into online resources, however, it’s important to learn how to spot unreliable websites. The internet is unregulated. Anyone can post anything and claim that it’s true, even if it’s not. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) suggests asking who, what, when, where, and why when evaluating an online resource.

“Who?”: Examine the site’s authority, or who runs it and why you should be believe them

If the site is run by an individual, he or she should have some credentials, like a medical degree or clear experience. If the site is run by an organization, do a little research and find out if it’s a credible organization—like the Arthritis Foundation—or if it’s a smaller, questionable organization with no real credibility. Try to find contact information or a physical address. If there’s no way to get in touch with anyone other than online, proceed with caution.

Also check the domain name to see who’s really providing the information. Resources from universities or government entities are often packed with the most recent research and a lot of excellent background information, but sometimes individuals publish information through an organization.

As stated by National Network of Libraries of Medicine:

“The tilde (~) means that the site is a personal page (compare an address like med.harvard.edu/~jsmith/headache to med.harvard.edu/neurology/headache)”.

A personal page isn’t necessarily unreliable, but it’s worth noting since there’s a slightly higher chance of personal biases. The ending of a web address can give some insight, too. An ending of “.edu” means the website is published by an educational institute, like a university. The ending “.gov” means it belongs to a government entity. Nonprofits’ websites end with “.org”. For-profit companies often end with “.com”.

“What?”: Look at exactly what the website has to say

The old saying that “If something’s too good to be true, it probably is,” can hold true for websites, too. If a resource puts forth all sorts of too-good-to-be-true claims, it may not be very reliable. Highly emotional language, lots of CAPITAL LETTERS, and an overabundance of exclamation points (!!!) are also warning signs.

Use common sense. If an online resource says that “WE’VE FOUND A MIRACLE CURE FOR ALL DISEASES!!!!!”, be wary. If the website tries to play on emotions instead of using facts, be cautious. Keep in mind that if a miracle cure of some sort really had been discovered, it would be all over the news—not just on some hard-to-find website.

“When?”: Find a date

The medical field moves fast. Something that may have been cutting-edge research or the big, new cure a year ago may now be outdated. Many articles about research studies include the dates on which the study occurred. A lot of websites also have a “last updated” notation, often found at the bottom of the webpage. If a resource has a blog, but the blog hasn’t been updated for a few years, it’s a good bet that the site itself hasn’t been updated either. A site with a blog that’s updated often (like this one) might be a better resource for up-to-date information.

Testing a website’s links is another easy way to check how up-to-date the site is. Many resources have embedded links in the text. Other resources may have a page devoted to “Links” or “Resources.” If several of a website’s links are no longer functional, it’s a good sign that the site hasn’t been updated in quite a while.

“Where?”: Find out where the information comes from

However often a website is updated, and however reliable it appears to be, it’s still not likely credible if its information comes from unreliable sources. This is another instance when checking a website’s links is a good idea. A site that links back to outdated, advertisement-covered, or biased sites is probably not a reliable source of information.

Good online resources provide links back to other reliable resources that back up information. A site that uses government, educational, or research agencies as its sources is probably a good one. One good online resource should be the stepping stone to finding half a dozen additional reliable resources.

“Why?”: Ask yourself “Why does this website exist?”

This question can help identify potential biases in a resource. If a website is plastered with ads for a particular product and consistently finds ways to recommend purchasing said product, that website probably exists to sell a product. This makes it more unreliable, because everything it says is slanted to make readers want that product.

Figuring out an online resource’s greater purpose may not always be so easy, though. According to the University of California San Francisco:

“At other times, the source may not disclose all of the information or may have a bias that is more subtle and difficult to detect. Even well respected medical journals or websites may have a slight bias, depending on their experience. For example, a journal targeting surgeons may not discuss other valid treatment options such as radiation or chemotherapy. Although the information may be accurate, it may have a slight bias because of its particular perspective.”

There’s nothing wrong with a resource that has a “slight bias,” as long as readers are aware of the bias. If the website is reliable and accurate, and if the reader is aware that the information is coming from a particular perspective, it’s still possible to glean useful information.

Learning to evaluate the reliability of an online resource is an acquired skill that seriously improves health literacy. As with most skills, practice makes perfect. Eventually, it’ll take a minute or less to evaluate an online resource. Until then, remember to ask the five quick questions: who, what, when, where, and why?

Start by practicing on the Pain Doctor website:

  • Who? The “About” pages not only introduce the staff of Pain Doctor, but also explain the doctors’ roles and the role of pain management. The contact information is also readily available.
  • What? The Pain Center provides a vast amount of information about pain conditions and treatments. The Inside Pain blog provides up-to-date information on a variety of topics.
  • When? At the bottom of every page on the Pain Doctor website is the phrase “Copyright © 2013-2014”, which means that this site is up-to-date. Links throughout the site are functional. The Inside Pain blog is updated weekly.
  • Where? Each individual condition and treatment ends with a list of references so readers know where the information came from and where to conduct further research, if desired. The Inside Pain blog is always full of embedded links to sources like the CDC, NIH, WebMD, MedlinePlus, and Mayo Clinic, in addition to original sources for scientific studies and research.
  • Why? Pain Doctor’s goal is to “provide world class care that we would want for our own mom or dad,” and the website is an extension of that goal. By providing in-depth, easy-to-understand, and up-to-date information, we do our best to help people understand their pain conditions and find the best possible treatments.

What are some of your favorite online health resources?

Image by Carissa Rogers via Flickr

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