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Evaluating Health Information

How to read and evaluate medical information (even if you're not a scientist)

Checking 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 our librarians 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. We can learn to spot red flags of junk science and vested interest.

Using those tips will help you become a savvy information consumer.

Fact-checking sources is always important!

Fact-checking sources is always important!

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, snake-oil-spotters, and diet-fad-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.

Tip: Ask As You Read

Cochrane, an organization devoted to promoting evidence-based medical research, recommends that we 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 page Trust It? Or Trash It? for more evaluation tools.

Spotting Spin in Health Reporting

Medical research news reports are often misleading, for any number of reasons. Spin happens. In order to make a story more appealing to readers, it may overstate its importance. Or complex findings might be boiled down to make an over-simplified short sound bite. This is far too common - a study of Google Health News articles published in 2013 found that almost 88% of the reporting on medical studies in their sample "had at least some type of spin, such as misleading reporting or interpretation, omitting adverse events, suggesting animal study results apply to humans or claiming causation in studies that only reported associations."

      So, readers, be skeptical! 

Always look to see if the news report gives a link to the original scientific report (and if it doesn't, see if you can find the original with a quick online search.) Once you do find it, use the Trust It or Trash It tools along with the tips on Deciphering Medical Research to figure out what that research study really says.

Tip: Making Sense of Medical Language

Making Sense of Medical Language

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

MedlinePlus includes a wealth of information from medical dictionaries and encyclopedias to help interpret health-related jargon and terminology.

 How Science Really Works

    To be continued ...

The stories we tell ourselves about scientific discovery, those eureka! moments and heroic inventions, are great fiction - but that's not how science actually happens. In real life, research studies often contradict each other, and scientific knowledge moves forward bit by bit, filling in details until we can see the big picture. Or not. For a more realistic picture. of scientific discovery, see: 

Don's just ask Dr. Google!

Start with a Trustworthy Source

If you're searching for answers to your health-related questions, though, for best results --

search within respected collections of health and medical information, like these:

The text on this page is copyright PlaneTree Health Library, licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. Linked contents are the responsibility of their creators or copyright holders.