In June last year, I published a blog post titled – “Injury Management: Shared-decision making in a digital age”. In that post, I discussed the notion of how digital technology is influencing the course of health and wellbeing management in the clinical sense, and we discussed tips for successfully navigating the digital journey and online landscape. A couple of these tips included:

  • Not being afraid of technology – don’t shy away from what it can do
  • Not being complacent – using technology to inform your health consultation and build a relationship with your health provider

The point I want to expand on in this blog post (which now seems to have become a two- part series), is the notion of “scrutinising” your sources of information”. The obvious, case in point is Dr. Google (or, Googling your health symptoms), but this is equally applicable to asking questions of the information collected through social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc), mobile apps, and fitbits, apple watches, etc.

 

In our last feature, I touched on the notion of being “critical” about health information online. Asking oneself: where the information came from? Whether it should be seen as accurate? Reliable? Trust worthy? Etc. You might say, “well that’s easy for you to say”, “as a professional, you know what to look for”. This might be true…but; Whether you’re a consumer of health services, or a health professional, did you know that there exists, physical, evidence-based gold standard resources that have been designed to help you scrutinise digital sources of information?? If the answer, is “no”, you’re about to find out. I always make sure that I teach my university students about this and I hope it serves other people well. There are a variety of frameworks and models out there informing what to look for when evaluating health technologies, but here I’m focussing on one – evaluating the credibility of online health information.

The HON Code (or, Health on the Net):

The HON Code, was first developed by the Health on the Net Foundation in Geneva, Switzerland all the way back in 1996[1]. Even then, there was already concern about the quality of medical information cropping up on the Internet. The HON Code was envisioned in response to this, as a way to make medical and health websites more evidence-based and higher-quality in terms of the information they provide. It remains unchanged since 1997.

Other than being a certification system for health information websites (which is outside the scope of this blog), HON outlines a series of guiding principles that help us to ask the right questions of health information online.

Some things you might want to think about when either writing health information for the web, or simply reading and digesting it oneself1:

  • Authority: The information/site gives the qualifications of the content’s authors
  • Complementarity: Information is provided to support care, not replace it
  • Confidentiality: Respect is given to the privacy of the site’s users
  • Attribution: The authors cite the sources of information they provide (much like citing the HON Foundation and website here in this blog)
  • Justifiability: The information’s claims are justified, balanced and objective
  • Transparency: The content is accessible, any contact details are valid and provided
  • Financial disclosure: Details of any funding relevant to the information are provided
  • Advertising: Any advertising should be clearly distinguished from editorial content

There you have it for now. Again, there’s no one size fits all but sometimes we find it hard to know where to start with scrutinizing online health information. While the above dot points are not exclusive or a full list, they might be a useful starting point when considering the quality of information.

Like anything, and similarly to what we discussed in “Injury Management: Shared-decision making in a digital age”, remember that we shouldn’t be aiming to replace good shared-decision making and communication with a registered health professional with online information. Always aim to be discerning and when in doubt, ask questions.

Dr. Mark Merolli is a Physiotherapist at Complete Sports Care and has a PhD in health information technology. He lectures and researches extensively in this area.

[1] Health on the Net: https://www.hon.ch/HONcode/. Accessed 23 March, 2019