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How to Evaluate Online Health Claims

More than 80% of Americans search for health information online.

Too often they find bad advice, incorrect interpretations of studies or even downright fraud. Unfortunately, the bad claims can look just as legitimate as the good ones. So how can a person with no medical or scientific training know what to believe?

Here are some indicators to steer you in the right direction.

Look for:

Recognized health-related institutions

These sources use evidence-based research when passing along health information:

Most of the time, they will have the following in their web addresses:

  • .gov: Government agencies
  • .edu: Educational institutions
  • .org: Professional organizations

“About This Site”

This is where you can find out who is running a website, which is not always obvious. For example, a site dedicated to knee pain may run by an orthopedics association, a fitness center or a pharmaceutical company. Each will have expertise to share, and knowing who is providing the information will give you context to evaluate any bias that might exist. 

URAC Accredited or HON code logo

Websites that offer health information to consumers may display a logo from Health on the Net (HON) and/or the Utilization Review Accreditation Commission (URAC). These logos show that the site has been certified as adhering to a standard of quality regarding its content.

             

For example, if you see the HON code logo, you know the site has met the following standards:

  • Authority: Giving qualifications of authors
  • Attribution: Citing sources and dates of medical information
  • Justifiability: Justifying claims and/or making balanced and objective claims
  • Advertising: Clearly distinguishing advertising from editorial content

BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee partners with Healthwise.org to provide information online to people who need help making a health decision. Healthwise is a URAC accredited organization that provides health web site content that’s evidence-based and easy-to-understand.


Be suspicious when:

The website sells products

Advertisements disguised as scientific research aren’t always obvious, but there are a few classic signs.

Be wary if they:

  • Promise instant relief or miraculous results
  • Reference studies that are attributed only to a single expert or institute
  • Feature only glowing testimonials, or
  • Endorse one particular product and sell it on-site.

The advice comes from a celebrity

They may sound convincing; they likely believe what they’re saying and can cite statistics or studies to back up their claims.

Fame and personal experience do not give a person authority on health topics, or the ability to evaluate scientific evidence.

If a celebrity talks about a health problem that was alleviated by a particular brand of medication, they may be a paid spokesperson, so do your research.

The headline makes big, definitive declarations

Scientific studies cited in health news outlets rarely deliver the kind of bold conclusions that many headline writers love. Dig deeper into the story and you may see that the “Possible Cure for Alzheimer’s Disease” is based on a study done on mice, and past success in mice has not translated to humans.  


Always:

Search for multiple sources

When you do this you might discover the same exact article on a variety of sites. That may indicate it’s from a press release, or that a story that has been distributed by a wire service like the Associated Press. Again, that doesn’t make it inaccurate, but you should explore other coverage of the claim to get the full picture.

Talk to your doctor

Before you make a big change related to your health, speak to your physician. They will know if there are any concerns or precautions you should take.

Nancy Henderson

Nancy Henderson

Nancy Henderson, a writer and editor originally from New York, moved to Nashville more than 25 years ago and considers herself more Tennessean than Yankee these days. As Content Producer/Writer at bohan Advertising, she has written about health care and wellness for a variety of publications.

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WellTuned provides inspiration and practical advice for healthy living.
WellTuned does not offer medical advice. Any personal health questions should be addressed to your doctor.

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