5 Tips for Finding Reliable Health and Wellbeing Information Online

By: Dr Lauren Macdonald

With an ever-increasing amount of information available on the internet, it is not uncommon for people to go all "Sherlock Holmes" over a medical problem, before visiting their doctor. Fortunately, there are plenty of great health websites that provide reliable, trustworthy, unbiased information online. However, while we would like to believe that everything that appears online is accurate and correct, this is just not the case. To help you sort through the online clutter, we have some tips for you to follow.

What's the issue?

The very fact that you are reading this article, nestled amongst the 'Wellbeing' section of this site, indicates that you are engaging in a online health-researching mission of your very own. And so you should be! There are huge benefits to using the internet to research health and wellbeing. For starters it has an incredible ability to motivate people to take control of their own health, and make positive changes to help keep themselves healthy. It can also inspire people to try something new - anything from healthy recipes and antioxidant-rich green smoothies to regular exercise routines and mindfulness. However, the volume of health information available online can also be overwhelming and, sometimes, contradictory. Whilst one article might be tooting the health benefits of going vegan, another is pushing paleo, and yet another will be promoting a more alkaline approach. It can be confusing to say the least.

Due to the huge volume of information accessible online, it is crucial to be aware that just because it is visible - be it on a website, a blog, or instagram - this does not necessarily translate to the information being accurate and reliable. The current problem with the internet is that it operates unregulated. The websites and individuals that you choose to search and follow do not necessarily have credentials in the field they choose to focus on, and the topics discussed and promoted are not always backed by research. Health and wellness experts are no longer the go-to-people for information. Today, if you have access to the internet then you have access to a community where you can share your own voice, behaviours, ideas and knowledge with anyone you follow, as well as those who choose to follow you. Recommendations can be made based on your own experience or scarily, something that is completely fabricated.

The quality of information available on social media often contrasts with sites which have been certified by The Information Standard. The Information Standard has been introduced to fulfil the need for a “quality filter” to help people decide which information is trustworthy. It provides a recognised “quality mark” which indicates that an organisation is a reliable source of health and social care information. To gain certification, a site has to demonstrate that the methods used to produce their material are robust and result in information that is accurate, accessible, impartial, balanced, based on evidence and well-written.

Although there is no doubt that the internet is a valuable source of health information, we recommend that it is wise to be critical of websites, apps, and other social media before you go ahead and follow the health advice offered.

Basic Tips to Follow

1. Does the author have any credentials? Even if someone does not have any credentials (for example a degree in nutrition), this is not to say that you shouldn't be inspired by their recipes, or follow them. However, anyone who makes specific health or dietary recommendations should ideally have proper accreditation. Before you go cutting out any major food groups due to a recommendation by a "nutritionist", be aware that although there are plenty of qualified nutritionists out there, the title isn't regulated, so anyone can technically call themselves a nutritionist. The Association for Nutrition and the British Dietetic Association are useful resources if you are interested in exploring this issue in more detail.

2. Is the site or individual trying to sell me something? If so, does the product or service sound too good to be true? As the saying goes, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” Be wary of quick fixes!

3. Are scientific claims backed by sources? On Instagram or other social media sites, the owner may not always provide sources after stating a health claim. If this is the case, ask yourself if the fact is something you’ve heard before or sounds realistic. If you’re unsure, contact the account owner to see if they can refer you to evidence-based sources that support the health claim. Think twice before you follow the advice of sites that throw around buzzwords ("toxic" seems to be a favourite) without looking at the research.

4. How is it worded? Look out for the balanced, concise writing styles of health and medical professionals. Learn to recognise what’s hype and what’s credible.

5. Are there dates on each post? Dates should be included so you know if the information is current.

If you are still unsure after asking yourself these questions, ask a health care professional for assistance in determining if the source is reliable.