Do you consult the internet for health-related information? If so, you’re among the 60% of Canadian web users who go online for health research1. As this method of seeking information grows, so does the plethora of websites claiming accurate and up-to-date medical information. Snake-oil salespersons have an entirely new audience and online pharmacies with questionable business practices abound. While there are many outstanding websites providing excellent and reliable guidance, it can be difficult to wade through the mishmash and separate fact from fiction.
As many web users are taking advantage of new web technologies, wikis are becoming popular online resources. The Oxford English Dictionary describes a wiki as, “A type of web page designed so that its content can be edited by anyone who accesses it, using a simplified markup language.” This means that anyone can add to, remove, or alter content easily, with changes appearing on the website instantly, in contrast to a traditionally edited web resource, where a select group of experts write and/or oversee its content.
Although this can be fun for topics relating to hobbies or similar, it can be a problem for wikis where the topic is medical in nature, where anyone can insert information without supporting evidence. This kind of input could mislead the user and could even cause serious consequences. In general, you should be wary of any wiki for health information. However, if you choose to use a wiki source, then it is wise to verify its content with other evidence-based sources.
Wikipedia2, an expansive website, is a wiki that effectively serves as a free online encyclopedia wherein users themselves determine the content. The popularity of Wikipedia is immense; it operates in 235 languages with more than 10 million articles on an innumerable array of topics, and is one of the most frequently visited websites in the world. Not surprisingly, Wikipedia is also a source that many patients look to for medical information.
A study published in the journal, The Annals of Pharmacotherapy,3 recently examined one small section of Wikipedia, namely the drug information, and compared it to that of a conventional medical website, Medscape Drug Reference4 (MDR), wherein content is overseen in a peer-reviewed process by an expert editorial board. The study authors used eight categories of drug information, which they determined were important to patient safety. These were administration, adverse drug events, contraindications, dosage, drug interactions, indications, mechanism of action, and use in pregnant or lactating women.
The biggest contrast between websites occurred in the area of scope of information, where Medscape greatly outperformed Wikipedia. While Wikipedia could only answer 40% of the drug information questions posed by the researchers, MDR had answers to more than 80%. When looking at completeness of data, Wikipedia also faired considerably worse, with only 76% of answers being complete, compared to MDR, which provided answers that were 95% complete. There were 48 instances where critical drug data were missing from Wikipedia and 14 such omissions on MDR. However, by contrast, the researchers found that factual inaccuracies were not present on Wikipedia, but four errors did occur on MDR.
The study authors recognize that Wikipedia can be valuable to health consumers as a point of engagement or as a supplementary source of health information, but caution patients that serious health risks may occur from relying on this popular web resource.
While the internet opens up worlds of possibility to score great deals on auctions, make travel plans, market your business, keep up with friends, and even find romance, when it comes to your health, your physician and other trained medical professionals are still the best sources! Be sure to ask your trusted healthcare professionals to refer you to reliable internet sources.
More on Canadian web behaviour
According to Statistics Canada, almost 6 out of 10 Canadian adults using the internet from home reported going online to search for health information. Of these, slightly more were female and they tended report a higher level of education as well as a higher household income compared to individuals who did not use the internet to seek health data and those who did not use the internet at all. Most frequent searches were for information on specific diseases, followed by lifestyle (diet, nutrition, and exercise), specific symptoms, medications, alternative therapy, and surgery. Interestingly, there were marked differences between the provinces when it came to types of searches, with Atlantic Canadians favouring searches on lifestyle and medications, British Columbians looking into alternative therapies, and those in Quebec seeking more information on specific diseases.1
Questions to consider when evaluating website content:
- What is the purpose of the website? Are they trying to sell something?
- Who runs the website? Look at the ‘About Us’ or ‘About This Site’ sections.
- Who wrote and developed the content of the website? Sites produced by governments, university medical schools, and registered charities are usually trustworthy, but be wary of look-alikes posing as reputable sources.
- Be sure to click on the HON (Health on the Net) icon, as just having the icon showing does not mean you can trust the website to be medically-sound, or that professionals have overseen the content. When you click on the icon, it will tell you more about who writes the content for that particular website.
Join our facebook group! CSIR has an active facebook group, welcoming participants who live with digestive conditions such as IBS, acid reflux, Crohn’s disease, and others, along with their family, friends, and healthcare professionals who are keen to gain insight into the patient perspective or management strategies. This unique facebook community exists for individuals to support each other, share coping tips, and relate to the sometimes challenging, sometimes funny, and often frustrating circumstances they have in common. If you’re not already a facebook member, it’s free and easy to join. Go to facebook.com and follow the instructions to sign up. To find the CSIR community, search for our full name, the Canadian Society of Intestinal Research.
Websites you can trust
Go to our Links & Resources page to view a list of websites produced or funded by the various government ministries responsible for health in each of the listed provinces and territories. These trusted internet resources could serve as a primary source of quality, medically sound, and up-to-date health information overseen by qualified medical professionals. Some of these sources provide listings of available health services and many contain contacts to explore for further information.