We’re all a bit worried about the spread of illness these days, so where should we look for the most accurate, reliable, and up-to-date information? While Google can be a useful tool, relying too heavily on the web for health info is risky—how do you know if the information you’re getting is reliable? Which sources might be spreading “fake news”? How can we tell the difference?
More than half of students who responded to a Student Health 101 survey said they question the reliability of a health information source at least twice a week. Here’s how to know what to look for in a health website and recognize red flags so you can sort the best from the bogus.
- Uses plain language
- Acknowledges uncertainties and unknowns
- Based on a meta-analysis of multiple studies when possible
- Cites peer-reviewed, published medical studies
- Content largely created within the last five years
- Cites studies involving lots of human participants
- Packed with scientific-sounding jargon
- Breakthrough! Miracle cure! Exclamation points!
- Few sources
- Biased funding source
- Sources generally older than five years
- Cites studies involving a dozen mice
“I’m a nurse, so I look at [articles] with a critical eye. There are certain articles that are produced to get clicks, and there are some articles that are backed by science and logic. These aren’t always one and the same.”
—Graduate student, University of North Dakota
What to look for
Trustworthy language isn’t overly technical. But it shouldn’t be “dumbed down” to the point where it isn’t accurate anymore, says Dr. Niket Sonpal, associate program director of the Internal Medicine Residency at Brookdale University Hospital and Medical Center in New York.
“According to the findings, eating nuts on a regular basis strengthens brainwave frequencies associated with cognition, healing, learning, memory, and other key brain functions. In other words, they help boost your brain power.”
Red flag: Scientific-y jargon
You don’t want the terms to be so technical that you can’t understand them—if you can’t understand what it’s saying, or if it sounds like your kid sister is playing doctor, look for another resource.
“My professors have told me that it should be explained as if you were explaining it to your grandmother (given that she isn’t a research scientist!).”
—Sonya M., fourth-year undergraduate, Northern Illinois University
What to look for
The info should acknowledge when research is incomplete or conflicting. “Sometimes, caveats are what make a claim truly applicable or not,” says Dr. Sonpal. Unbalanced articles are often trying to sell a product or belief.
“The groundbreaking study found that adopting a confident posture can actually change your brain chemistry; however, similar studies have been unable to replicate those results so far.”
Red flag: Miracle cures and price tags
Miracle cures and so on are usually a sales pitch. Don’t fall for it. “Any article claiming a miracle cure that isn’t already a part of the evidence-based clinical guidelines set forth by a medical society should always be considered suspect,” says Dr. Sonpal. On that note, also look out for price tags. “Online health information should always be free—if an article is charging you for free information, it’s likely off,” Dr. Sonpal says.
“I tend to stay away from websites or articles that are backed by certain diet movements, such as the vegan or paleo diet groups, because they tend to be biased towards that lifestyle and only present data to glorify them. This skewing of data and misrepresentation of results is misleading.”
—Lucas J., second-year undergraduate, Marian University, Indiana
“Accurate science usually doesn’t come packaged with a clickbait headline like ‘You won’t believe…’ or ’18 simple tricks that will surprise you.’”
—Elliece R., third-year undergraduate, University of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada
What to look for
Ideally, you want the content to be based on a meta-analysis or systematic review. These analyze data from many studies on the same topic. Meta-analyses are much more comprehensive and broadly applicable than any individual study.
“A meta-analysis of 37 studies conducted over the past five years concluded that practicing mindfulness and meditation does in fact help reduce depression.”
Red flag: Few sources
Reliable health information is based on large, broadly applicable bodies of research. If the majority of the sources are the work of the same researcher or only apply to one very specific group (such as elite runners or grandmas in rural areas), tread carefully.
“I like seeing statistics and reviews. I also research many different articles/reports and compare their information to see what sorts of things overlap.”
—Joree S., fourth-year undergraduate, South Dakota School of Mines and Technology
What to look for
If it isn’t based on a meta-analysis or accredited review, the health content should at least be based on a peer-reviewed study done by researchers affiliated with universities or other respected institutions, such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
“According to a joint research effort between Harvard and Johns Hopkins, regular aerobic exercise promotes longevity.”
Red flag: Biased funding source
Be wary of research sponsored by an organization that has an interest in the outcome (e.g., a study on soda and obesity sponsored by the soft drinks industry).
There should be no obvious conflicts of interest involving the author(s) or the organization(s) that sponsored the research. Additionally, the content shouldn’t assume that correlation equals causation. For example, researchers may find that people who do trampoline workouts have more joint problems. But that doesn’t mean trampolines cause joint problems—those jumpers might also be marathon runners.
What to look for
All or most of the content has been created within the past five years. “Many times, the medical community has been wrong or has advanced so much that old treatments are almost considered barbaric and archaic,” says Dr. Sonpal.
“Scientists have been studying the benefits of exercise on depression since the 1970s, but a 2017 study that explored running as a treatment for depression made the case even more compelling.”
Red flag: Old sources
Some websites cite older information. This is OK if it’s a reputable source, like a university medical school, and it’s referencing a landmark finding, such as “smoking causes cancer.” Make sure the older research is paired with recent studies that expand upon or refine it. “If old studies are the only ones cited, that’s concerning, but if it’s a mix, that’s usually fine,” says Dr. Sonpal.
“Trustworthy sites will work to keep the data as up to date as possible.”
—Rebekah S., sixth-year undergraduate, Rowan University, New Jersey
What to look for
Ideally, the research cited will have involved a large number of human participants. If the findings were only based on a dozen mice, the information can’t be applied to humans yet. “Animal studies should always be considered the beta version of clinical information—they’re the step before human studies,” says Dr. Sonpal.
“To test the effects of sleep deprivation on school performance, researchers recruited 500 high school and college students and had them keep sleep journals for two months.”
Red flag: Cites studies using animals (especially small sample sizes)
“What happens in a rat won’t necessarily happen in us, especially if it was just one rat—we need to see it happen in larger studies,” says Dr. Sonpal.
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*Name changedGet help or find out more
Niket Sonpal, MD, associate program director of the Internal Medicine Residency at Brookdale University Hospital and Medical Center in New York.
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