How to Find Evidence-Based Health Information
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Online health information overload
Not long ago, finding evidence-based information about health was simple, but limited. Most of us received health information directly from our physicians. Scientists conducting the research that led to new treatments functioned outside the public’s awareness.
Today, a vast amount of health and science information is available on the internet. Each person is exposed to so much information that it can be overwhelming — and sometimes dangerous. This is especially true with conflicting messages on sensitive topics like the health of our family members and pets. This page can help you find the evidence-based information you need.
The Parsemus Foundation’s goal is to advance innovative and neglected medical research on human and animal health. We summarize the scientific data on a number of health topics to make it easier to understand. As a nonprofit organization, our goal is to equip you with the facts to help you take control of your health and make it easier for you to discuss health topics with your physician or veterinarian.
Tips on separating health facts from fiction online
We have probably all fallen — at some time — for an online information scam that made exciting (and even wild) claims about a product, news event, or entertainment figure. When it comes to medical science, false or misleading information can put people and pets at risk of severe health outcomes.
To help you be a better online health information consumer, here are some tips on determining what information is based on facts and sound scientific evidence:
Where is the information coming from?
The source of the health information you see online is the most important question. How can you tell if it’s a reliable source? Investigate the webpage to get some background on the organization or individual posting the information.
- What is the organization’s goal? Is it to educate or are they selling something? Be more critical of sites selling products.
- What type of organization is it? The “About Us” page or the URL can give you some clues about whether the organization is trustworthy.
- .gov is a U.S. government agency
- .edu is an educational organization (university, school)
- .org is usually a nonprofit (such as a health education and advocacy organization)
- .com/.net is usually a business (such as a maker of commercial products, a pharmaceutical company, or in some cases a news or health company)
- Who wrote the information? News articles, publications, and posts often include the name of the author. Does the author have credentials relevant to the topic? Be skeptical of personal blogs or individual stories. They might be interesting but should not be relied upon when you make health decisions. Each person’s healthcare needs are different.
Types of online information
- Primary literature: This is the actual scientific publication about a specific study or review of an area of research. Peer-reviewed articles have been carefully evaluated by experts in the field, so the information should be accurate and objective. While you can find details about a medical study in a scientific publication, they may be difficult to understand (see “Go the the source” below for pointers). You can find the primary literature in search engines like PubMed.
- Medical associations, nonprofits, and government health sites: These are great places to find evidence-based health information. Medical associations and nonprofit organizations like the Parsemus Foundation offer health information as part of their educational mission. For a list of the best health websites, check this link from the Medical Library Association.
- Health summary sites: There are many websites that summarize health information on hundreds of diseases and disorders. WebMD and Healthline are examples. The information is often general and may not apply to you — but could help to clarify basic information and bring up questions to ask your doctor. Symptom checkers are often inaccurate, so if you’re worried about a health condition, it’s best to speak to a healthcare professional.
- News: Journalists share important and interesting information via online news outlets. Large, mainstream media outlets often have health reporters who specialize in the topic. A benefit of reading news from a reputable outlet is that the reporter has condensed often difficult medical information into easier-to-understand language. But be on the lookout for fake news; check the author, the date, and links to the scientific publications the news is based on.
- Businesses: Many companies that sell products related to health conditions have websites that include information about the conditions. Be skeptical about sites that recommend products that can be purchased from those sites. If you’re not sure whether the site is a business, check for information about product sales and the “About Us” page.
- Personal webpages, forums, and social media posts: You can find an almost unlimited amount of information from individuals sharing their opinions about health and treatment options. The problem is that you often have no idea if the writer has the required medical training or expertise needed to make claims about health topics. If you find intriguing information on these sites, be sure to dig deeper on evidence-based sites or check with your doctor.
What does the online health information include?
Look for the type of evidence that is provided to support whatever claims are made. For medical research information, look for references and links to published scientific studies, details on the number of people involved in the study, how long it was conducted, details of the results, who conducted the study, and where it was done.
Be wary of extreme claims — whether they include “too good to be true” stories of health improvements, or indicate that typical, approved treatments should not be used. If you have questions about what you see online, talk to your healthcare provider for answers.
Go to the source — read scientific publications
If you have a medical question and want more information than you found on reputable online news sources and websites, what can you do? You can always go to the source of the research findings by reviewing the scientific publications. Researchers share their latest findings by publishing the results of the study in a scientific journal. Luckily, the move toward “open access” means that now anyone can access many scientific publications for free!
Where to find medical publications
Several sites can help you find scientific publications. PubMed is a free search engine referencing life sciences and biomedical topics. Google Scholar and Science Direct are also free search engines you can use. On most Parsemus Foundation webpages, we include lists of select publications (with links) so you can read them if you’re interested.
We recommend you start with more recently-published review articles. Scientific knowledge is constantly changing, so you need the most recent data to inform health decisions. Searching for review articles is very helpful when gaining a general understanding of the topic and an introduction to the language used in a particular area of science.
When choosing search terms, make sure they are specific enough to get to the topics you want to find. For example, typing “diabetes” into Google Scholar will result in over 4 million scientific papers! If you want to understand the side effects of metformin for Type II diabetes, try to narrow your search to “diabetes type 2 metformin side effects,” choose Review articles, and look for those that have been published more recently (since 2019). That search results in 18,000 review articles, which are summaries of the topic.
How to understand a scientific publication
So you have a list of scientific publications. Now, the difficulty comes in understanding them! This is because most scientific articles are filled with acronyms, specialized wording, and complicated statistical analyses. This makes it tough for anyone who is not a specialist in the field to understand the information fully. But with a little knowledge about the format of scientific papers, you can gain a general understanding of the study outcomes.
Most scientific publications include certain sections:
- Authors and affiliations
In reviewing your list, look at the titles and only focus on those that include the information you’re seeking. Next, check out the abstract. This is a brief summary of the study and should help you understand what it’s about. Read the introduction, which is easier to understand as it’s a summary of the field covered in the research study. It’s also where most of the acronyms are defined. You’ll need that info to make sense of the rest of the paper. After the introduction, you can jump straight to the discussion or conclusions. Again, these sections are easier to understand and will contain the main points of the study, including comparisons with other studies and identified areas of weakness in the current study. If you need details on how the study was conducted, this is in the methods section. The results section includes the outcome of the statistical analysis and most of the tables and figures used to describe the outcomes. You can find more pointers in this article.
Once you have reviewed a few scientific papers, you may still have questions. This is a good time to discuss your understanding with your healthcare provider. Let your doctor know which publication you have questions about.
Evaluating Internet Health Information: A Tutorial from the National Library of Medicine, by Medline Plus, National Library of Medicine, Oct 2023.
Trust It or Trash It? Tool to help you think critically about the quality of health information, by Access To Credible Genetics Resource Network, May 2013.
How To Evaluate Health Information on the Internet: Questions and Answers. by The National Institutes of Health, May 2022.