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The following article appears in the Spring 2020 issue of Family Safety & Health and represents the type of information your employees and their families can learn about each quarter to help them stay safe while off the job.

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Asking 'Dr. Google'

How to Find Online Health Information You Can Trust

By Susan Vargar

“What’s this rash?” “How long does the flu usually last?” “Should my child be taking multivitamins?”

These days, most of us take our medical questions to the web. A 2013 Pew Research Center study found that 72% of internet users had searched online for health information in the past year. And given the proliferation of smartphones and other mobile devices, experts believe that percentage is probably higher today.

But despite the abundance of high-quality medical knowledge at our fingertips, information that’s biased, misleading or even dangerous is plentiful as well – and it can be difficult to spot the difference.

“Anyone can make a website and put anything on it,” said Christine Caufield-Noll, manager of the Harrison Medical Library and the Community Health Library at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore. “It’s hard to know who to trust.”

A little dubious information might seem harmless at first, but the consequences can be severe.

“If people use this information to inform a decision about whether or when to see a doctor, to diagnose themselves, or to decide what treatment to pursue or not pursue, then the quality of the information can have a direct impact on their health,” said Stephanie Morrison, the lead for MedlinePlus.gov at the National Library of Medicine.

Even trustworthy online resources may provide medical information that doesn’t apply to every individual, and it can be difficult for a layperson to interpret it – often leading to unnecessary worry.

“People joke that everything you look up online leads to cancer, which of course isn’t true,” Morrison said. “But you don’t necessarily have the background to understand that symptoms are much more likely to be something common. This leads to a lot of anxiety that a trip to your doctor would have alleviated right away.”

1. Are you a savvy searcher?

Chances are, you’ve looked up your medical questions online just like the rest of us. But do you know how to tell good information from bad? And do you know when it’s time to take your concerns to a medical professional? Take this quiz to find out:

Which internet suffixes should you look for to identify the most credible medical websites?

a) .gov

b) .com

c) .edu

d) .org

(Answer: a, c and d)

“You can usually trust government websites (.gov) or those run by educational institutions (.edu) or nonprofit organizations (.org),” Morrison said. “Medical school websites, professional journals, hospital websites and other professional health organizations tend to put out good, accurate, authoritative information.” Although websites that end in .com (a suffix used for commercial entities) can provide high-quality information as well, be cautious and examine them more closely, she added.

2. You read an online testimonial from someone who experienced amazing results with a new treatment. You should:

a) Scan the site for more testimonials

b) Enter your address and personal details so the company can send you more information

c) Keep researching, comparing the information with what you’re seeing on other sites

(Answer: c)

Be wary of miracle cures, especially if the claims are based on testimonials rather than medical research, Morrison warned. “As with everything in life, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is, and you need to dig further and read more.” Don’t enter personal information unless the site clearly explains why it’s being requested, how it will be used and how your privacy will be protected.

3. Message board commenters are reporting scary side effects linked to a medicine your child is taking. You should:

a) Have him or her stop taking it, just to be safe

b) Call your pediatrician’s office

c) Check the side effects listed on the manufacturer’s website

(Answer: b)

In some cases, it’s important to consult your physician rather than the web. This is one of them. Call a medical professional whenever you have specific questions about your or a family member’s health, Morrison said. “Things like ‘What’s this weird mole?’ or ‘My baby can’t stop coughing and I wonder if it’s serious,’ are not questions for ‘Dr. Google.’ Other examples of times when it’s better to see a doctor are if you’re having side effects from a medication; if you have new, unexplained or worsening symptoms; if you have new prescriptions and you’re not sure what they’re for; or if you want to interpret test results,” she said.

4. True or False: If you’ve made a New Year’s resolution to improve your physical fitness and are looking for tips, the internet is a good place to start.

(Answer: True)

“There are a bevy of healthy recipes, exercise routines and other ways to stay healthy on the internet,” Caufield-Noll said. However, look for content that’s written or reviewed by a credentialed health professional (such as a dietitian) and/or published by a reputable organization.

5. You saw information online about an alternative treatment regimen, and wonder if it might work for you. You should:

a) Keep it to yourself – these kinds of decisions are better left to physicians

b) Look for web testimonials from people who’ve used the treatment

c) Print the page and bring it to your next doctor’s appointment

(Answer: c)

“Don’t be afraid to take what you’ve researched to your health care professional and say, ‘This is what I’ve found. What do you think?’” Caufield-Noll said.

In fact, web research can help you work with your health care team in several ways, including:

  • Doing pre-appointment research to determine what questions you should ask
  • Learning about how an upcoming procedure or surgery works and what you can expect
  • Gathering additional information about a new diagnosis or medication you’ve been prescribed
  • Investigating alternative treatments or local clinical trials to discuss with your doctor

“There’s been a progressive shift toward patients taking charge of their own health,” Caufield-Noll said. “It’s a partnership, where the health care professional is educating and advising, but the patient has an equal say, if not more – because it’s their health. That two-way relationship – and having online information available for quick reference or to spur conversation with the doctor – is how modern medicine is evolving.”

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Note: Although the information and recommendations contained in this article have been compiled from sources believed to be reliable, the National Safety Council makes no guarantee as to, and assumes no responsibility for, the correctness, sufficiency or completeness of such information or recommendations. Other or additional safety measures may be required under particular circumstances. This material may not be reproduced in any fashion without the National Safety Council’s permission.

The ABCs of Online Research

To evaluate the credibility of a website or online article, Christine Caufield-Noll, manager of the Harrison Medical Library and the Community Health Library at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore, recommends looking for the ABCs:

Authority: Who owns or pays for the website – a nationally recognized medical center, a for-profit company, an individual? Who created the content – was it written or reviewed by a physician, dietitian or other expert credentialed in the subject area?

“It should be clear where that information is coming from,” Caufield-Noll said. If in doubt, check the “About Us” section of the website.

Bias: Is the website or article selling a product or service, or pushing a particular treatment or agenda? Are advertisements clearly marked and separate from the rest of the content, and is the site’s advertising policy posted?

“If a website only mentions one side of the story, that’s a red flag,” Caufield-Noll said. “I like to tell people to look at a couple of different websites. Are they saying vastly different things about the same topic, or are they all recommending the same thing? That can give you an idea of whether a site is biased.”

Currency: Look for a date. When was the article published or the website last updated? If the information is more than 5 years old, look for something more recent, Caufield-Noll said.

“New information is always being put out there, and new discoveries are always being made,” she said.