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Online health searching: Is it reliable?

Mother and baby looking at a doctor on a computer
Credit: iStock.com/recep-bg

When a child is sick, looking for health information online is a natural reaction for many parents. It also has its advantages.

Searching for information can allow parents to better understand their child’s condition and help them to play a more active role in their child’s health management.

However, it can be hard for parents to determine which information is credible, and, despite parents’ inclination to search online, many are reluctant to be upfront about this with their doctor.

Karen Scott is an Associate Professor, Child and Adolescent Health in the University of Sydney Children’s Hospital Westmead Clinical School. She says that while a number of years ago parents were told to simply “not Google” their child’s health condition, things have changed.

Even five years ago, her research showed that 90 per cent of parents searched online about their children’s health. She believes that number would be even higher today.

“To some extent the genie is out of the bottle. Everyone is doing it. For doctors, it’s not a case of just asking people to stop, as that won’t happen,” Associate Professor Scott says.

Still, many of us won’t confess to our doctor that we’ve researched the symptoms or a specific condition.

“Both parents and paediatricians say that only about fifty per cent of parents will tell the doctor they have looked for the information online,” Associate Professor Scott says.

However, whether parents tell the doctor or not, it seems doctors know what is going on.

“We interviewed 17 paediatricians in 2017 and they all said they know parents are searching for online information. They can tell from the questions these parents are asking,” Associate Professor Scott says.

Both parents and paediatricians say that only about fifty per cent of parents will tell the doctor they have looked for the information online.
Associate Professor Karen Scott

Pros and cons of searching online for health information

There are some obvious and legitimate advantages for parents who search online about their child’s health. About two thirds of parent do this before they see their medical practitioner, while 90 per cent do so afterwards.

“This can be because parents think of other questions after the appointment, or the doctor used terms they didn’t understand and they didn’t tell the doctor at the time,” Associate Professor Scott says.

For the most part, the searching itself doesn’t concern today’s medical practitioners. However, they would all prefer parents tell them where the information comes from, so they can determine if the source is credible.

What worries doctors more is when parents change the treatment or medications given to their child based on their internet research and don’t discuss it with the doctor.

“This is a major concern,” Associate Professor Scott says.

Determining which information is credible

There are a number of actions parents can take to find credible health information online.

The first step is to know your source.

“You want a site that is aimed at consumers. That means the information should be easy to understand, and they will define any medical terms. You also want something funded by or supported by someone credible. This might be a state or federal government’s health department site, or the website of a major teaching hospital or public health institution,” says Associate Professor Scott.

Associate Professor Scott also recommends sites operated by non-profit organisations that specialise in a particular health issue, such as the National Asthma Council of Australia or Reach Out.

One little known but useful verification process is to see if the site in question has accreditation from the Health On the Net (HON) foundation. This not-for-profit organisation, operating since 1995, approves websites every year and gives credible sites its ‘heath trust’ mark, or logo. 

“The US-based Mayo Clinic is a good example of this,” says Associate Professor Scott.

On the more trustworthy sites, health content is more likely to be separated from advertising.

“Trustworthy commercial sites like WebMD.com will label their advertising so that it’s obvious and separate from the health information; be wary of sites that don’t do this,” says Associate Professor Scott.

While material published in an academic journal can be an indicator it is credible, this can create a number of challenges for non-medical professionals working to interpret this information.  

First, they will need to understand how the piece of research fits into the bigger picture, and second, not all academic journals are credible. Better to, as Associate Professor Scott says, “go for sites aimed at consumers”.

Presenting your medical professional with information found online

While many parents are reluctant to show a medical professional the results of their online research, instead conveying their discoveries ‘covertly’ via targeted questions, being upfront allows parents to openly ask the doctor what they think and whether it is something to be worried about. 

Taking a printout is probably easiest for medical professionals, however you could also have the material ready to show them on your phone. Irrespective, make sure you provide the source, and as always, be aware that most doctors are busy and can’t look through many documents.

“You have to judge how much time you can take up,” says Associate Professor Scott.

Tips: How to tell if online health information credible?

  1. Is it written in an unbiased and unemotional way?
  2. Is it written by a qualified health professional or relevant scientist?
  3. Is it evidence-based or the work of an expert panel? Some good websites will link to research articles, while others will explain that they use an expert panel.
  4. Who is funding the site? Is that information conveyed upfront?
  5. Is it current? Information that is more than a few years old usually raises alarm bells for medical practitioners. Good sites will list the date of the most recent revision of the page in question.
  6. Is there a Health On the Net (HON) trust mark? It’s usually in the bottom right hand corner of a webpage.