The Internet is a powerful tool, but it is not without pitfalls. It is no secret that the Internet is the primary form of research for our students — medical information included.
Teaching our students how to use the Internet for medical information comes with a unique set of challenges. Below, we’ll break down how to judge the credibility of online sources.
What Do We Risk?
In a world defined by instant access to communication, we run the risk of our students leaping to incorrect conclusions. For medical information (used to inform medical decisions), this is incredibly dangerous.
Wrong, unsafe, or incorrectly understood medical information can have a very real impact on the lives of our students.
Online Medical Information: How Do We Determine Credibility?
The Who: Always Look to the Source First
The first step in gauging credibility is to analyze the source. Consider publications from the following:
- Mayo Clinic, a nonprofit academic medical center
- National Institutes of Health (NIH), a part of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
- Johns Hopkins Hospital, one of the world’s premier teaching and biomedical research hospitals
The above institutions are examples of nonprofit, publicly funded, or university-affiliated medical centers. As a general rule of thumb, students can consider information from these sources to be impartial and accurate.
On the other hand, imagine information from the following fictional organizations:
- The Academy of Tobacco Studies, a for-profit research center funded by tobacco companies
- “Aunt Betsy Knows Best”, a blog selling herbal remedies for serious medical conditions
Clearly, these are not credible medical websites for research!
Yes, the examples are extreme. The core approach, however, remains the same — look to the source. If the source has an agenda, the website may lack credibility.
Tip: Websites ending in “.gov” (government) or “.edu” (top level domain for education) tend to be the most credible.
The What: What Information is Offered?
Consider the information offered by the website. For example, this article on the common cold from the Mayo Clinic gives a comprehensive overview of the disease. It offers general treatment tips, of course, but it doesn’t push a product — at best, it briefly mentions a generic medicine brand once or twice.
Tip: If a medical information website is telling the visitor to buy a specific product, it’s likely best to run in the other direction.
The When: Is the Information Current?
Outdated medical information is as potentially hazardous as incorrect content. It’s best to teach students to always check for a publication date.
Tip: The most credible online medical resources probably have the budget for quality web design. If the website looks and feels questionable, it probably is.
The Where: Where Did the Information Come From?
A few minutes spent poking around online can yield “evidence” that the 1969 Moon Landing is a government conspiracy and that smoking is good for your health. It’s vital that students understand where information comes from.
When our students stumble across medical information online, have them consider the following:
- What evidence does it provide?
- Is the evidence from a respectable, peer-reviewed medical publication?
- If the website provides studies as sources, do the studies back up the website author’s claims?
Tip: Medical studies have published abstracts — taking a minute to verify a study supports a website’s information is quick and easy.
The Why: Why Does This Website Exist?
As a pair of general rules:
- Credible online medical resources inform; they do not diagnose.
- Credible sources may recommend treatments; they do not sell medication.
Ask your students to take a minute and consider why a medical website exists. Informative articles from the Mayo Clinic, NIH, or Johns Hopkins exist to provide an objective understanding of a medical issue.
The more we instill a healthy sense of skepticism in our students, the better equipped they will be.
Tip: If a website pushes a treatment or recommends self-diagnosis without a doctor present, run for the hills!
What Are Some Credible Medical Websites For Research?
Our students can develop an appreciation for quality online medical information below:
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: premier teaching and biomedical research center
- Mayo Clinic: Nonprofit medical center
- DailyMed: Government-run drug information website
- MedlinePlus: Government-run health information website
- National Institutes of Health: Government-run health information website
Better Students, Better Research
There’s a lot of medical information on the Internet. Instilling our students with the right mindset for how to find credible medical information online is vital.
If our students can differentiate between credible medical websites and illegitimate ones, we can breathe a sigh of relief.