The Real Danger of Fake Health News
How to find credible pediatric health information online
Your child comes home from school or daycare with a note alerting you to a case of hand, foot and mouth disease.
You grab your phone and type in a few keywords and are immediately overwhelmed with the wealth of information on the internet.
So, how do you know where to look and, more importantly in this age of "fake news," what's accurate?
"It's so important for today's physicians to make sure they use digital platforms to reach parents and provide helpful and accurate information," said Justin Smith, M.D., medical director of digital health and a pediatrician at Cook Children's. "Parents are so busy these days, and sometimes it's difficult to make sure what you are reading online is accurate. Trusting internet sources for you or your child's health without verifying their accuracy can be dangerous.
The problem for most of us is distinguishing trusted sources of information from misleading or altogether "fake" health news.
"Type 'RSV' into a search engine, and you'll come up with millions of hits," said Barbara Steffensen, MSLIS, family librarian at Cook Children's. "You have to figure out which results are authoritative, which are commercial and which would apply to children rather than adults. Filtering all of those options can be a complex task for parents who want reliable information quickly."
A few tips can help you simplify your search and find information that you can trust.
Consider the source
A website's domain name can tell you a lot about its credibility. Nonprofit, nongovernmental research, advocacy, education and health professional organizations are generally excellent resources that tend to have ".org" endings.
The sites with ".gov" means you are visiting a United States government site. Colleges and universities also can be excellent sources; identify their websites by looking for ".edu." at the end.
So what about checkupnewsroom.com, the site you are reading this on right now? We are an online newsroom run by Cook Children's Medical Center in Fort Worth, Texas. We publish a story almost daily, but not until it goes through an approval process. The articles on this site are either written by or approved by the sources of the story before published. The same is true when you visit the Cook Children's website, cookchildrens.org.
Otherwise, domain names ending in ".com" or ".net" can be tricky. Online encyclopedias and for-profit websites are acceptable to use for the most basic information and a place to start your search, such as finding the definition of a disease but shouldn't be consulted for much else.
A well-designed website can mask flawed information. Before you dive into the material, read the site's "About Us" tab or an equivalent to learn about the organization behind the digital portal. Be careful. These sites may have a hidden agenda.
"Recently, I was searching for information online about a health topic," Steffensen said. "I found a page that looked promising, but when I checked into it, I found a law firm produced it."
Look for red flags
If you open a website and find it difficult to see past the explosion of advertisements, it's time to hit the "back" button.
"Lots of ads are a sure sign that a website isn't a good resource," Steffensen said. "If the site has ads all over the place, endorsements from pharmaceutical companies or solicitations for donations, searchers should be concerned, even if the material looks credible."
Read the fine print
Comb articles you can find online for easy-to-miss details that are essential clues to reliability. Is the author a medical professional? When did he or she write the essay? Was the piece reviewed by such an individual, and how recently?
Many families want to know as much as they can about their child's health and wellness, and becoming more health literate is great. What would be better still is for parents and caregivers to have peace of mind in knowing the information they gather is trustworthy.
Read what the National Library of Medicine suggests about web surfing and search wisely.
For more information
Need accurate health information that you can trust? Visit Cook Children's Education Resources page. Do you have questions about an illness or condition? About how to keep your child healthy and safe? Let us help. Click here to learn about the Matustik Family Health Library, located inside Cook Children's Medical Center.
Cook Children's approved health resources for you:
- Health Education and Resources
- Ask a Librarian Health Information
- Procedure Information
- Condition Information
- Medication Information
- Parent Center
- Teen Center
- Kid Center
- Community Education Events