educate yourself: how to find accurate healthcare information online

The internet is a beautiful thing!  We can connect with people all across the globe; we can watch cat videos for hours; we can find facts and opinions on (probably) literally any subject.  In today’s culture, it is our go-to for information.  We no longer trek to the library and check out books, taking notes and comparing authors.  We simply types a phrase into a search engine and we’ve got thousands of websites vying for our attention, all claiming to have the information we want.  But with the unchecked ability for anyone to post anything on the internet, how can we find accurate information about things that matter?  Being in grad school with access to (almost) unlimited resources and having actual, real researchers teaching me how to do research, I’ve learned a few things I thought I’d pass along.

Number 1: Wikipedia is not a credible source.  Your teachers weren’t just saying this because they wanted you to look past the very first thing that popped up (seriously, why is it always the first thing?).  Anyone can edit that website.  Yes, anyone.  Did you see the mess it was after Peter Capaldi was announced as the next Doctor?

Number 2: Blogs are not credible sources.  Yes, I realize the irony of that statement.  But think about it; anyone can write a blog about anything.  Where did they get their information?  Was it from a credible source?  If so, they should cite that source so you can go check it out yourself.  (And you should go check it out yourself.)  If not, why should you believe them?

Number 3: Neither is the news.  I’m not saying they’re liars but I’m not calling them truthers.  The news is always biased.  Again, if they’re not citing sources, how can we believe them?

Number 4: Don’t believe everything you read.  So you know not to look at Wikipedia and you found a credible-looking website that’s not a blog.  That means you’re good, right?  Not necessarily.  if I had the cash and the care, I could pay to have an official website with my own domain rather than this free one.  That wouldn’t make my words any less opinionated.

Number 5: Don’t read just one source.  Please, don’t do this.  If one person tells you there’s a massive tornado heading your way, you’re going to ask someone else or check the weather or look at the sky or something before you drop everything and skip town.  You’re not going to simply take them at their word.  So why would you do that with the internet?  If you’re looking for information on Taylor Swift’s dating life, I don’t really care how few sources you use.  But if you’re looking for something important to base opinions and decisions on, such as (let’s get controversial!) vaccinations, look at many sources.  There are pros and cons to everything and no one person is going to tell you the full story.  You have to figure it out yourself.

So how do you find good, solid information?  This is going to sound like I’m a lying liar, but blogs and Wikipedia aren’t terrible places to start.  Keyword: start.  Find out where they got their information, go to those sources and start digging.  You are now a detective.  If someone says the flu vaccine is ineffective against a certain strain, find the study that reported that.  Find the primary literature.  What is primary literature?  The article written by the people who conducted the study.  There will be tons of big words, jargon, graphs and data sets that make no sense and some more stupid-big words.  But at the very beginning of the article there will be a section titled “Abstract”.  That’s your best friend.  It’s a reader-friendly summary of the entire paper.  If it looks interest, you can glance through the rest of the paper (Introduction is background information; Methodology is how they set up their research project; Results is the raw data; Discussion is the interpretation of the Results; Conclusion tells you what to do with the information).

Next questions: Where do I find these dense, stupid-long articles?
They’re all over the place!  Google Scholar is a great, free place to go to find articles and it’s easy to search.  Pubmed is another great place.  It’s probably a little different from what you’re used to as far as layout and aesthetics but it is a huge database of credible information.  Just like with Google Scholar, you don’t need an account to access most (if not all) of their information.  While this is still pretty easy to search, you can get some really specific search results if you use Boolean search terms.

Earlier I mentioned that blogs can be credible if they cite their sources.  I want to give you an example of one.  If you look around on this blog, you’ll notice that every time the author says something as a fact, there is a little number somewhere nearby.  Scroll down to the bottom of the post and find the corresponding number.  After that number there will be a citation for the article or website where they got their information.  If you’re skeptical or want to learn more, you can go to that article and check out the information yourself.  This blog is a great example of what you’re looking for.

Now I know some people might object to these articles, saying they are funded by pharmaceutical companies who just want to sell their product.  True, some of them are; but there are many more that are not.  There are also come very rigorous regulations in place to guide both research and its reporting.  Pharmaceutical companies aren’t the only ones funding research and not all research has the hypothesis that you should take X medication.  There are tons of articles out there about alternative treatments (see above blog) and they will tell you both the pros and the cons.  In fact, I would encourage you to look those up.  Just because it’s “natural” doesn’t mean it can’t hurt you.  Perhaps your body doesn’t eliminate something as fast as you’re taking it in.  Could there be side effects if it builds up?  There may be research that has looked into that possibility.

Have you used resources like this before to fact-check what you’ve read on the news or seen on Facebook?  Will you use this process in the future when you hear about a new treatment option or are discussing a controversial topic?

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