Evaluating the Accuracy of Health Information in the Media

With the plethora of health information disseminated in the media on a daily basis and searchable on the Internet with the click of a button, how do you discern what’s valuable and what’s not? When faced with a serious or chronic illness, the availability of trustworthy and accurate medical information is vital to understanding and managing your condition.

Our friends, Jean McCawley, founder of the Stevens Johnson Syndrome Foundation, and Rebecca Petris, developer of The Dry Eye Zone, recognized the importance of accessible, accurate information on health conditions in order to educate patients and their families. They also saw the value in information as a tool to help overcome some of the fear and anxiety that accompany illness. These women have dedicated themselves to providing accurate information and trustworthy resources for anyone interested.

Ms. McCawley and Ms. Petris have offered reliable information on SJS and dry eye, but what if you are researching another topic related to eye health. How do you, as a health-care consumer, determine what is and is not accurate when reviewing media stories or searching the Internet? How do you filter through the barrage of media reports to decide what is valid?

Health Insight, developed by Kimberly M. Thompson through a grant to Harvard University School of Public Health, suggests that you consider some of the following queries in order to determine the quality of information presented.

  • What is the message? Get past the presentation to the facts.
  • Is the source reliable? Think about the quality of the information and the source.
  • How strong is the evidence overall? Understand the context.
  • Does this information matter? Determine whether it changes your thinking or response.
  • What do the numbers mean? Understanding the importance requires understanding the data.
  • What else do I need to know? Identify the information needed to help you make a better decision.
  • Where can I get more information? Find out more to make a better decision.

When performing Internet searches, the National Cancer Institute proposes detailed guidelines to help you determine whether a website and its contents are legitimate and accurate. Their recommendations include looking critically at:

  • Who runs and pays for the website
  • What are the sources and documentation for the info presented
  • How does the website interact with users
  • What data is collected from users and for what purpose