Sure, you consider yourself pretty savvy when it comes to online health research (hey, you read Prevention.com, after all). But the web is a crowded place, meaning that thousands of results can pop up from a single search. And plenty of those sources might seem legit…when they’re actually far from factual. (Here’s what you need to know about online therapy.)
There’s no reason to avoid doing any health research online. In fact, new research suggests that it can actually empower some patients: A study published in the latest Journal of Communication found that cancer patients who used the web to inquire about their health experienced a reduction in “cancer fatalism” and a boost in positivity.
But the information we find can have a huge impact on whether web research helps, or hinders, our health, says Scott Prince, Chief of the Online Information Branch at the National Institutes of Health. It’s important to be informed about the latest news and research, but he cautions that patients should always verify information with their doctor—especially before making any health-related changes. In this 2012 article, we round up the top tips to enhance your online research, courtesy of Prince and Loren Frant, Deputy Chief of the National Library of Medicine’s Public Services Division.
If you’re looking for a particular phrase, put it in quotations, Prince says. For instance, a search about women and diabetes will yield the best results by searching for “women and diabetes” instead. Some search engines, including Google, offer an “advanced search” option, which can further parse your search according to metrics like an article’s publication date or country of provenance.
Maybe one website offers up some study results you’ve never read before. Find multiple sources to back up the findings, Prince says. Try to get a feel across the web as to the accuracy and validity of the information you’ve found, and “practice common sense and good judgement.”
“It’s important that a site be clear on who the author of the article or website is,” Prince says. Typically, any information on a site ending in “.gov” will be from a state or federal agency, and is likely to be reliable (the CDC and the NIH, for instance, both have these URLs). “If you have to dig deep, or that information isn’t provided, it’s a red flag,” Prince cautions.
It’s important that the health information you trust is timely—particularly on topics where new research tends to emerge often. “For topics like the common cold where research isn’t changing very much, we have higher tolerance for less recent dates,” Frent says. “If it’s about clinical trials on breast cancer, the dates need to be recent.”
Read the full article on Prevention.
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