Breast Matters - Searching for Health Information Online
Issue No. 4
Searching for Health Information Online
Once restricted to physicians and healthcare professionals, a vast amount of health-related content is now freely accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. However, it can be challenging to know if what you have found online is accurate or applicable to you or your loved one. Here are a few tips for safer surfing and online networking:
BE CAREFUL ABOUT REVEALING TOO MUCH PERSONAL INFORMATION, PARTICULARLY IF IT ALLOWS STRANGERS TO IDENTIFY YOU. REMAINING ANONYMOUS ON THE INTERNET IS MUCH HARDER THAN YOU THINK!
1. Understand the limitations of Google. Google is remarkable, but searching for a very general term like “chemotherapy” will produce millions of hits. Many may be irrelevant or misleading. You should also be aware that paid advertisements may appear at the top of your search results. Usually they are labeled as ads, but sometimes that’s easy to miss.
2. Original journal articles can be searched through PubMed (pubmed.gov). Access to articles and online books from the National Library of Medicine has been available free of charge since 1997. While health care professionals are the primary audience, many patients now use PubMed, too. However, access may be limited to abstracts (summaries), and the technical nature of the articles can be a barrier.
3. Reliability is generally higher for .gov or .edu websites. These are U.S. governmental websites and websites from educational institutions. Although the .org designation is no longer restricted to nonprofits, many U.S. and international cancer centers use .org, and these are often excellent places to start a search.
4. To help determine if online information can be trusted, look for signs of high reliability. These include: an editorial board or scientific advisory panel, listed by name; dates of the latest updates; an “about” page describing the organization and giving contact information; and clearly designated sponsorship. Be cautious of any health website prominently displaying an ad for a product or service, particularly on the home page.
5. Beware of missing information when searching for clinical trials. Clinicaltrials.gov is an excellent resource, but it can be hard to tell if you meet the eligibility criteria for a trial without access to your own medical records. Even if you appear to qualify, your physician can help you assess whether participation is in your best interest. In addition, the site may not catch newly approved trials, or those that have closed or have temporarily suspended enrollment.
6. Social networking websites and online patient communities can be a great source of support. However, take certain precautions. Be careful about revealing too much personal information, particularly if it allows strangers to identify you. Remaining anonymous on the Internet is much harder than you think! Be skeptical about treatment claims that sound too good to be true. Some people who share experiences via social media have a particular agenda, and you should not be swayed solely by their testimony. Also, remember that while health care professionals are gradually becoming active on social media, HIPAA privacy regulations and good clinical judgment prevent them from discussing specifics in a public forum where your identity is not protected.
Disclaimer: Miller is editor-in-chief of Cancer.Net, the patient information website from the American Society of Clinical Oncology