It's on the Web; It Must Be True

A new study by the Pew Internet Project reveals that only 25 percent of those who search the Internet for health topics check the source and date of the information regularly to assess its quality, according to a Reuters news article posted on Sunday.

A quick look at the Pew site reveals that the information that Reuters has reported online seems to be accurate, according to me.   (I just checked [http://www.pewinternet.org], and it was pretty darn easy.)

Over 110 million Americans have searched for health topics on the Internet, the Pew report finds.  Three-fourths of Americans trusting information without question woudn't be so worrisome if the Internet weren't loaded with outrageous health information.

If you don't believe me, take a deep breath and do an Internet search for "urine therapy."

Now, you no doubt have been drawn into the Bad Medicine column by my inviting and trustworthy smile.   Yet I can only hope that readers remain as skeptical as I am upon encountering information on the Internet that can affect your health.   Here's how I assess the accuracy of Web sites:

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What bad Web sites don't what you to know

A Web site claims that a mysterious herbal product is guaranteed to cure everything from baldness to jaundice through a ten-week, $250 regimen grounded in an esoteric California moon cult remotely based on Eastern mysticism.   How can you tell if the health information is reliable?

One way is common sense.   You can assume statements like "tidal forces control hair loss" and "dermatologists don't want you to know" are certainly wrong.   Or you can look for the HONcode logo from the Geneva-based Health on the Net Foundation.

The HONcode is a set of ethics followed by about 4,500 Web sites in nearly 70 countries.   These sites voluntarily adhere, at least in theory, to eight principles laid out by the foundation.   Once accredited, a site is permitted to display the HONcode logo.   Clicking on this logo will take you to the main HON Web page and automatically verify that the site is in compliance with the code.

Similar codes exist, but the HONcode is the most widely displayed and the oldest, created in 1995.   The HONcode requires that information providers disclose potential conflicts of interest, provide credentials for authors relaying medical information, and reference the source of the information it presents.

The absence of a HONcode logo doesn't imply the information is bogus; the organization simply might not know about HON.   But the presence of the code is a very good indicator of accuracy.

I read the news today, oh boy

Some health news is just too good to be true, such as recycled reports this Halloween of chocolate candy warding off cancer.   At best they are wildly simplistic.   Most news reports, however, at least indirectly reference the source of the news.   This is your opportunity to visit that organization's Web site and search for the origin, which is perhaps a study report or press release.

Usually, as with the case of the Pew Internet Project, this is very easy.   If there's not a direct hyperlink in the news article, open up a new Web page and search for the source.   If the news is current, then that organization often has its "big result" displayed prominently on its site.

Countless vapid news articles last year relayed the news about the chocolate-anticancer link.   Readers were left with the impression that candy is good for you; it was the kind of ironic story the press loves to report.   Yet a simple jump to the source of that report---to Georgetown University and a press release from its Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center---would have revealed that it's not chocolate candy per se that has anticancer properties: It's an ingredient in cocoa, from which chocolate is made, called pentameric procyanidin.  

The scientists involved with the study were not recommending Almond Joys to fight cancer.

Digging deeper

There was a time when one needed to get to the U.S. National Library of Medicine or a good university to conduct thorough health research.   Now anyone in the world with an Internet connection has access to over 16 million health articles through PubMed (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/).

Usually only the abstracts are posted, but often entire articles are available.   Nevertheless, one can get to the true sourse of the health report.   Sticking with chocolate, as I am apt to do, the Georgetown press release stated that the lead author on the study was Danica Ramljak.   Plugging Ramljak into PubMed, I find several articles, including what I need:   "Pentameric procyanidin from Theobroma cacao selectively inhibits growth of human breast cancer cells" in Molecular Cancer Therapeutics.   I can read for myself what the study really says.

I don't expect everyone to wade through such technical reports.   But plugging in a fringe health practice such as "urine therapy" to the PubMed search engine will reveal that there are no health reports, among the 16 million archived, supporting the claims you might read on Web sites.  

You can try this with any name or product you read on a Web site, using PubMed instead of Google.   It's as unbiased as you will get on the Internet, unless you believe in the conspiracy of the medical establishment thwarting good research on urine therapy and prefer anecdotal, unreferenced information.   Then you're on your own.


Christopher Wanjek is the author of the books “Bad Medicine” and “Food At Work.” Got a question about Bad Medicine? Email Wanjek. If it’s really bad, he just might answer it in a future column. Bad Medicine appears each Tuesday on LIveScience.

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