Tips for Smart, Safe Searching for Online Health Information

Debbie Kimbler at Computer Station

When it comes to online cancer information, smart searching is a must.

The internet has a lot to say about cancer, with a Google search of the word turning up more than one billion results. While many of those will lead to reputable sites with helpful details, users can also find plenty of confusing, misguided and outright false information.

“The internet allows for rapid and wide distribution of both helpful and misleading information. When it comes to your health decisions, it is important to know which is which,” says Donald Pearson, MBA, MLIS, AHIP, the manager of the Patient and Family Resource Center (PFRC) at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC – James).

When attempting to learn more about cancer online, Pearson recommends that users verify the qualifications of writers before putting too much stock in the material they’re providing, and that they take care to separate fact-based medical information – such as patient education materials from the PFRC – from personal stories, opinion pieces and commerce-based content.

“A good website will identify the medical and scientific research evidence behind any claims or statements it makes. Testimonials and personal stories can be interesting, but such information is opinion, not proven medical fact,” he says. “Also, be aware that some health information websites are in the business of selling products, not providing unbiased information."

To help navigate the often confusing digital health landscape, Pearson recommends the following tips for online searchers:

  • Look for an “about us” or “about this site” section, and make sure it identifies the sources of the information and their qualifications.
  • Look for the dates of the last updates to each page you visit to verify that the included information is current.
  • If a site’s information doesn’t make sense to you, don’t accept it as the truth without getting clarification from a trusted source, preferably your health care provider.

Joyce Hendershott, MSW, ACSW, LISW-S, the director of the OSUCCC – James Patient Education Department, also advises users to prioritize easy-to-understand online health information to help ensure safety as well as accuracy.

“When people struggle with understanding how to prevent and manage health conditions, they are more likely to skip necessary medical tests, have difficulties with self-care, make mistakes with their medicines and visit the emergency room more often,” she says.

One of the best ways to ensure clarity and accuracy of digital health information is to seek materials provided by well-known, respected healthcare organizations, including hospitals like the OSUCCC – James and organizations like the National Cancer Institute.

“The James patient education materials are developed with input from our clinical experts who specialize in caring for cancer patients,” Hendershott says. “These resources are written in clear terms to help patients and their caregivers make informed health care decisions.”

While the right mix of verification, skepticism and diligence can increase the odds of finding accurate health info online, it’s also important that users realize that even the best websites shouldn’t be used to diagnose or rule out possible health conditions, or to plan lifestyle choices like diet and exercise routines.

“The internet can be a great way to educate yourself on health information, but always discuss any concerns or decisions with your doctor or other members of your health care team,” Pearson says.

Learn more about the OSUCCC – James Patient and Family Resource Center, which meets the learning needs of patients and caregivers through digital and printed education materials, as well as on-site staff members who provide information about types of cancer, treatments, nutrition, symptom management and much more.