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Assessing the quality of health information in an age of information overload

Note: This post is written by the team of The ONE Group (Oncology – Nutrition – Exercise) at Penn State College of Medicine as part of a first-person blog about their work. Learn more about the group here.

A cancer diagnosis raises many questions, both for the patient and their family, about support, symptoms, treatments, side-effects, survivability and much more. Sometimes answers lead to more questions. Over time, new questions are likely to arise.

Your doctor should be your primary source of information, and it is important to work with them to make decisions about managing your treatment and health.

There are also times when you may want to learn more about what your doctor has told you, or even alternative points of view.

We live in an age where information is readily available at our fingertips. Online sources can be helpful, but unfortunately, not all the information out there is accurate, and in some cases, misinformation can be downright dangerous.

So, how can you be sure you are getting high quality health information? There are several things that are helpful to keep in mind:

  • Where did the information come from and who is the author?
    • Remember, anyone can create a website or social media account, or make claims on sites like Wikipedia.
    • Consider the credentials of the author, and whether they have relevant formal training and expertise (e.g., a health professional or scientific researcher).
    • Look for credible organizations – these are trusted institutions with a track record of reliability and integrity. Examples include Government agencies (e.g., the National Cancer Institute), not-for-profits (e.g., the American Cancer Society), and university research groups (e.g., The ONE Group at the Penn State College of Medicine).
    • Be wary if no information about the author or publisher is provided.
  • What is the intended purpose of the information?
    • Be cautious if the purpose of the information is to sell you something, present a viewpoint or is written on behalf of a religious or political group. This doesn’t mean you should ignore this information. Just be alert. Does the information seem balanced and unbiased? Is it consistent with other trusted sources (like those mentioned above)?
  • What kind of background information has been provided?
    • Is it up to date? Knowledge evolves over time. If the information is more than 5 years old, it is a good idea to check if updated information is available.
    • Is the information backed by scientific evidence? Scientific research involves systematic and transparent processes and includes important checks and balances for patient safety and to ensure that findings are accurate, relevant and do not overstate the implications of the work.
    • Has important information been left out or minimized? Health information should be balanced, reporting potential benefits as well as any risks. For example, few treatments are completely free of potential side effects. These should be clearly outlined alongside potential benefits so that you have all of the relevant information.
  • If claims are made, do they seem reasonable?
    • Be wary of miracle cures. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is!
  • Most importantly, it is always important to talk it over with your doctor. If you have found new information, or an alternative point of view, make a note or print it out to take to your next appointment. Work in partnership with your doctor to decide the best and safest course of action for you.

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