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Evaluating Health Information: Navigating Through Oceans of Information

Evaluating Health Information

We are (and should be) constantly evaluating any new information we receive. If we forget to check to see if that outrageous headline came from a satire website like The Onionthe joke's on us -- but getting fake health information is no joke. Even when medical information is accurate and up-to-date, it might not match up with someone's individual condition or situation.

How can we navigate safely through all the health-related content around us? This guide has advice from medical librarians, including some of the professional tools that we use to choose the links we share on PlaneTree Health Library's webpages. There are tips for identifying trustworthy health material, and for evaluating what you find to judge whether it's accurate, objective, and relevant to your specific information need. Using those tips will help you become a savvy information consumer.

Ultimately, though, be sure to discuss what you find with the health care team to make sure that it's useful information for you (or for the person on whose behalf you're searching).

Start with a Trustworthy Source

For the best results --

Start with respected collections of health and medical information, like these:

From Cochrane, an organization devoted to promoting evidence-based medical research:

To evaluate what you find, ask:

  1. who wrote it or is sponsoring the website?
  2. do they make a profit from providing this information?
  3. is it up to date?
  4. does it line up with information from other sources?
  5. does it show where that information came from, in a way that lets you trace the source?
  6. is it based on scientific research, or personal opinion?

See the other pages in this guide for more evaluation tools.

Making Sense of Medical Language

Medical literature is notorious for using jargon words and abbreviations. Here are some dictionaries to help translate:

It can also be hard to interpret a scientific research report if not already familiar with that form of literature. See this page for tips on how to read a scientific article.

Fact-Check News, Snake Oil, and Fad Diet Claims

There is a LOT of inaccurate health information on the internet, in magazine articles and books, on television, hearsay from friends or coworkers ... how can you tell what's accurate? To start, here are some quick fact-checkers and snake-oil-busters: 

Fact-checking information about the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 is a real challenge, because we are still learning about this disease. For fact-checking and myth-busting sources on those, see this page of our COVID-19 and Coronavirus Guide.

Unfortunately, it may not be sufficient to just fact-check health information, as this article from Health News Review points out. The other pages in this guide will give techniques and tips for evaluating information beyond a simple fact-check.

Is it the Right Information?

Even the most accurate information might not be the best (or even the right) information to use in treating someone. Diagnosis is tricky, and should be left to qualified professionals. No one wants to be a cyber-hypochondriac!

Be sure to discuss information gathered from these resources with your health care providers to see if it is relevant to your individual situation. Health and medical information accessed through these websites is not intended to substitute for or to replace the advice or instruction of a health care professional. 

Time Cycle of Information

News reporting has a predictable cycle - and what kinds of information you can find about the results of medical research, and in which format, depends on where you are in the timeline.

Not shown in this image is the time it takes to do the research study, the time to write it up as an article and move that through the peer review process, to reach publication in a scientific journal. The journey from research results to publication can take months - a year or more. (The next page in this guide has more information about the scientific peer review QA process).

Once a report on medical research is published (the "current event"), the news cycle starts, taking even more time to be reported, or its ideas to be incorporated into books.

 

information time cycle

 

Fields, Erin. Publishing Cycle. Digital image. Library : Module 5 Publishing Life Cycle. University of British Columbia, 30 Aug. 2013. Web. <http://wiki.ubc.ca/Library:Module_5_Evaluating_Information_Sources>.

About PlaneTree Health Library

PlaneTree Health Library's mission is to guide the public to trustworthy, accurate, and free health and medical information. In operation since 1989, it is a free, public, patient and consumer health library and  501(c)3 nonprofit organization. It does not take advertisements; recommendations are independent of any commercial relationship.

Visit our online information guides linked from our main website at: www.planetree-sv.org

The text on this page is copyright PlaneTree Health Library, licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-SA. Linked contents are the responsibility of their creators / copyright holders.