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Can you tell which health information is trustworthy?

How to decide what to believe when looking for health information online

The internet is full of information about health, but it’s not all reliable or useful. Accurate information may be hard to find and full of hard-to-understand terms. Meanwhile, incorrect or misleading information may spread quickly.

Before you make decisions based on health information you see online or share that information with someone else, ask yourself some questions about:

  1. Searching online page The source
  2. Web page The content
  3. Targeted web page Does this information apply to my situation?

Tips for Checking the Source

The website address can give you a clue about the source. Remember, not every medical website is run by experts.

Websites ending in .gov are government agencies.

  • Examples include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (cdc.gov), the National Cancer Institute (cancer.gov) the Food and Drug Administration (FDA.gov) and others.
  • These are highly reliable sources of information.

Those ending in .edu are for universities and academic institutions.

  • These are usually reliable sources of information, although you may want to look further into information from press releases and fundraising initiatives, which may have biased or overblown information about research from the institution.

Nonprofit or advocacy organizations’ websites end in .org. Some hospitals may also have .org websites.

  • Although nonprofits are often reliable, it's a good idea to look further at their mission, their advisors and board members to understand their goals and where they get the information they share with others.

.com, .net, .biz and others are usually commercial, for-profit companies. It’s a good idea to explore more about their business.

  • Determine if the company sells a product or service and if the information they’re sharing encourages people to buy it.
  • See if you can figure out who owns or governs the organization.
  • Confirm claims with other, expert sources, if possible.

"Peer-reviewed" is a term used when research results are reviewed by a panel of experts who did not conduct the research to make sure that findings are credible.

  • Peer-reviewed journals are considered reliable sources. But they can be technical and hard to read.
  • Some peer-reviewed journals may have simple-to-understand summaries of the research.

Social media posts and personal blogs can be a source of misinformation, which can get shared quickly and spread widely with many people.

  • Not everyone with a big online following has the expertise to back up their claims, especially when it comes to health information.
  • Even posts with many likes, shares or followers may not be true.

Tips for Checking Content

  • Make sure the information is based on scientific research rather than one person's experience or opinion.
  • Be aware of exaggerated language. Words like "poison," "scandal" or "shocking" might be red flags that the content isn't balanced or accurate.
  • Words like "cure," "sensational" or "miraculous" or content that seems too good to be true may be a red flag, too.
  • Search to see if there’s been similar research completed by other experts in the field.

Tips for Checking Relevance

Reading the full article may help you understand if the information applies to you.

If the article is about research:

  • Was this research on cells in a test tube or on animals? These studies may not apply to humans yet.
  • Findings from a small study or one that’s the first of its kind might need to be repeated before they become part of medical care. Check to see:
    • How many people were part of the study?
    • Has research been done on similar subjects in the past?
    • What did it find?
  • Search the name of the study online to see if any other experts commented on the research.
    • Have the results been reviewed by other experts?
    • Were the results shared publicly in a peer-reviewed journal?
  • Compare the people in the study to yourself. The more similar they are to you and your situation (age, gender, diagnosis, genetic factors, race, ethnicity, health history, etc.), the more likely the research findings may apply to you.

If the article is not about research, what is it about?

  • Personal stories can be uplifting or compelling, but they may not be reliable sources of health information.
  • Check articles about a new technology or business to see if the claims are based on research or instead on a press release or interview with company representatives.

When you’re reviewing health information online, ask yourself:
Is it trustworthy, or is it a BOAST ?

  • Man and woman back-to-back in front of letter B
    Biased
  • Man and woman facing away from each other with arms folded
    Overblown
  • Glamorous woman with hands holding microphones in front of her
    Amateur
  • Young woman holding a stack of money with more money falling in the air
    Sales-focused
  • Lab technicians examining test tube and mouse standing on top of test tube.
    Taken out of context OR Too early to be useful
Basic shapes, exclamation points, and chat bubbles on top of B shape
Man and woman back-to-back in front of letter B

Biased

Our own experiences and opinions influence how we understand information, which gives us biases we might not even recognize. Organizations can be biased, too, sharing information that matches their goals or opinions, even if it isn’t totally factual.

Magnifying glassSource

  • Who is the source? What is their business? Do they appear trustworthy? (Hint: Check the "about us" tab on the source's website.)
  • Did the information come from true experts? (Hint: If experts are named, look up their training and expertise.)
  • Does the source disclose who funded the research and any limitations with the study?

FileContent

  • Is the information based on research or personal experience?
  • Does the information presented seem balanced? (Hint: Check for sensational words.)
  • Do they discuss details about the research, who was studied, what was found and prior research that has been done on this topic?

Knowledge Check

Which example appears more balanced?
Option A: News article about BRCA gene mutations, showing an x-ray of woman's chest.
Option B: News article about breast cancer gene being a myth, showing an illustration of cell walls.
Bubbles showing stars and 100% on top of O shape
Man with big smile, pointing a finger at you and holding a megaphone.

Overblown

Websites thrive on the number of people who click on, or share the article. Articles with sensational headlines get more attention.

Magnifying glassSource

  • What other kinds of information does the website cover? Does it seem like a tabloid?

FileContent

  • Does the article use conclusive language? (“This food will prevent cancer.” or “This drug will cure all cancer.”)
  • Does the information seem too good to be true or meant to create panic?
  • Do you see any untrustworthy words or phrases used like miraculous, poison, toxin, astonishing, magic or “The secret cancer doctors won’t tell you”?

Knowledge Check

Which example appears more trustworthy?
Option A: News article confirming that drinking milk won't give you cancer, showing an baby calf with his mother.
Option B: News article about milk being linked to 80% increased cancer risk, showing an extreme closeup of cow's nose.
Circles, stars, and chat bubble on top of A shape
Glamorous woman with hands holding microphones in front of her

Amateur

When it comes to health information, it’s important to rely on experts, not amateurs.

Magnifying glassSource

  • Is the information coming from experts in the same field as the research?
  • Remember, not everyone with a degree has medical training, and not all doctors are experts in all fields of science.

FileContent

  • Does the article cite real research? Was the research published in a medical journal?

Knowledge Check

Which piece of content should you share with friends?
Option A: Article featuring video of doctor who says he knows how to treat cancer naturally.
Option B: Email that promotes a doctor who has life-saving information about cancer and asks you to forward it to friends.
Grid of dots and mouse cursor hovering over a box
Young woman holding a stack of money with more money falling in the air

Sales-focused

Websites or social media pages that are trying to sell you something might only present information that supports their product. They may even make up information to make people more interested in what they're selling.

Magnifying glassSource

  • Is the source a for-profit company?
  • Look closely at the website address to learn more about the source.

FileContent

  • Does the website encourage you to buy something after reading the information (a supplement, book, online course or other health-related product)?

Knowledge Check

Which source appears more trustworthy?
Option A: LightMind website that features cancer screening news and has a pre-order ad for buying an article about unleashing your body's natural cancer prevention.
Option B: National Cancer Institute website with news about screening tests and research.
Grid of dots and mouse cursor hovering over a box
Lab technicians examining test tube and mouse standing on top of test tube.

Taken out of context

Context is important. Sometimes the media leaves out key details that change how research should be understood.

Magnifying glassSource

  • Read the entire article, sometimes details about the research are buried in the middle or at the end.
  • Does the source link back to the original study article so you can look for any missing details yourself?

FileContent

  • Was the research completed in the last 3-5 years?
  • Are the statistics (numbers used to describe the research) explained well? Do the findings show an effect on people's health or wellbeing?
  • Was this research done on animals in a lab or on humans?
  • How many people were studied? Large studies with hundreds or thousands of participants may produce more reliable results than smaller studies.

Too early to be useful

Sometimes articles cover research without directly saying that it’s too early to be useful. It takes a long time for studies and research to become actionable advice about a person’s health.

FileContent

  • Have there been any similar studies?
  • Was this research done in a test tube, on animals or on people? If it was human research, how many people and who participated?
  • Are experts quoted about how this information should be used?
  • Does the article or resource talk about the next steps in the research process at all?

Knowledge Check

Which article more accurately represents the research findings?
Option A: Article from Mailbox Daily Health,featuring a young woman holding a chili pepper, about a laboratory study showing that chili peppers keep cancer cells from spreading.
Option B: Article from E-Health Journal Digest, featuring a lab tech holding test tubes, about early research showing that substance in chili peppers may slow cancer cells.
Female doctor sitting in front of laptop and writing with pen on a clipboard.

Now that you know how to identify a BOAST, how do you find trusted information?

Add the name of reliable sources to your search, or start your search on their website

  • National Cancer Institute (cancer.gov), National Library of Medicine (pubmed.gov) or other government agencies
  • American Cancer Society (cancer.org), FORCE (facingourrisk.org) or nonprofits that are recommended by experts
  • Your doctor's or hospital's website

Read the entire article and discuss with experts before making health decisions or sharing with friends, family or peers.

Remember

Outlined icon of health record file

Even trusted information based on research might not be relevant for your particular health situation.

Outlined icon of folder with health records inside

Always talk to your healthcare provider before making decisions about your medical care.

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