Searching online for health-related information is nothing new. But according to a recent study from Pew Research Center, 35% of American adults (including some of our clients and patients) are now turning to the Internet to diagnose specific medical conditions in themselves or others.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It seems that anyone who goes to the trouble of researching their symptoms is apt to be more actively involved in their professional care.
However, their research may land them on poor quality sites that offer misleading or even harmful information.
Consider that people often phrase their searches (especially for mental health issues) in a specific, long-tail fashion, e.g., why do i feel so bad all the time?
Search results for such questions typically come not from authoritative sources, but from forums, blogs and Q&A sites such as Yahoo Answers. People also pose questions on Facebook, Twitter and other social media, getting replies from well-meaning respondents who likely have no credentialed expertise on the topic in question.
In other words, for many folks, their diagnostic research takes place within online conversations, rather than through systematic review.
Your clients and patients may be doing their own research.
When prospective clients first contact you they may already have an idea of their mental health (and perhaps medical) diagnosis, and what they expect in terms of treatment. If they have consulted authoritative sources, their information is likely to be accurate and their expectations feasible.
Other clients may have diagnosed themselves based on what they read on Facebook about someone's Uncle Joe who had similar symptoms. They may ask you about unproven treatment methods or question your traditional approach.
In this age of instant information where quantity dwarfs quality, we need to educate ourselves and our clients to be open-minded, yet know how to filter out untrustworthy information.
For the most reliable and up-to-date health information it's much better to consult an authoritative, high-quality website than to rely on social media conversations.
Tips for evaluating the quality of a website
Who owns the site? If it's a large educational institution or government site e.g., Medline Plus, the content has presumably been vetted or peer-reviewed. Reliable sources also include major medical centers like MayoClinic.com.
For less well-known sites, keep in mind that the "Contact us" link does not necessarily tell you who owns it. Plug the site's url into the search box at WhoIs.com, which will reveal the name and address of the owner - that is, if the owner hasn't blocked the info from public view. If the owner's name is blocked, do not trust the content on the website.
Look for an "about us" link. There you can find out more about the organization's credentials. But credentials don't tell everything. There are plenty of quacks out there with MDs and PhDs, selling snake oil.
Is the information current? If you get a lot of broken links, that means they don't update their site very often.
Is the information published in scientific journals or in peer-reviewed media? Steer clear of sites that claim to have inside information that is proprietary. That's just double-speak for "I don't want to be subject to scientific scrutiny."
Is commercial interest or sponsorship made clear? Can you tell at a glance which is fact and which is opinion?
Does the information sound too good to be true? Does the site claim to diagnose and/or cure with 95% or better success? This is unrealistic.
Find a review of the website or the authors by doing a search for [website or author name] review. Do the same for any treatments or products they recommend.
Check out these resources:
The National Library of Medicine's 16-minute tutorial, "Evaluating Internet Health Information"
HealthNewsReview.org - Interdisciplinary reviews and ratings of selected health-related news stories