The number of websites offering health advice, including information about complementary medicines, grows every day. Many are useful, but others may provide inaccurate or misleading information.
In a recent study by health insurer Bupa, nearly 80 per cent of Australians admitted to going online for health information, with 70 per cent of those people using the internet to research medicines and nearly half looking for information to make a self-diagnosis.
But how do you know if the information you find is accurate? This can prove to be very tricky.
As part of the study, Bupa used the internet to search a number of different symptoms. The results may explain why there is now a term to describe people who develop paranoia from self-diagnosing on the internet – cyberchondria.
When searching “pins and needles” one website diagnosed vitamin B12 deficiency, another returned the result sciatica and a third, multiple sclerosis.
Put in “earache” and you will come up with a cyberdiagnosis of a common cold, ear infection or brain abscess.
Dr Christine Bennett, Chief Medical Officer of Bupa Australia, says the results highlight the importance of people accessing online information from high-quality, credible resources.
“While the internet undoubtedly provides people with greater access to resources, it’s essential that they access high-quality websites and content to empower them to make informed decisions about their health,” she says.
Before you start preparing for the worst or miss something serious, Dr Bennett suggests following these tips when searching for online health information:
- Check the quality. Look for websites that display an established mark of quality, or feature an endorsement from a government body or respected national health organisation. Remember that different countries have a different quality mark, as what is established medical practice in one country may not be so in another.
- Check the date. Some medical advice may become out of date, replaced by new evidence, new medicines, new tests and new theories within a few years, so it’s important to check when the health information was published. Also look for details regarding when the webpage was created and last updated. As a general rule of thumb, health information that is more than two years old should be considered out of date.
- Check for an ‘About Us’ section. It is important to find out who runs a health website and why. Reputable websites will make it clear whether or not the authors are suitably qualified to provide the information and whether there is an editorial process to produce factual content (rather than promotional content or online advertisements).
- Improve your search. When looking for health information online it’s important to be as specific as possible with your search terms as this makes it more likely that you will find what you are looking for quickly.
- Choose wisely. Even if your search finds a website that looks promising, it is worth checking where the information has come from.
- Speak to your doctor. You should raise any serious concerns regarding your health with your doctor.