When I was first diagnosed with MS, even before it was definite, I started looking into it. I wanted to learn more, about how the disease works, what treatments were out there, how people handled it, what the future may look like for me. I think most people do the same thing when they are told something so life-changing. Perhaps it is to remove fear, that fear of the unknown. Perhaps it is to feel some control over an uncontrollable future, to learn what can be controlled to ensure the best possible outcome. Perhaps it is to know what is possible, what can be achieved. Whatever the reason, the first step is usually Google, and when we start looking for answers online we need to ensure what we’re looking at is reliable.
The internet is a wonderful thing, it is full of information just a click away. It is also a terrible thing, full of misleading information that is just a click away. The problem is it is often difficult to know which is which. I want you to be able to make informed decisions regarding your health and the information you use to make those decisions should come from reliable sources.
Here are some questions you can ask to determine if the information you are reading online should be considered reliable.
First, when was it published? Whilst older studies or websites can still have relevant information or results, you should look for articles that were printed in the last couple of years. This means the information will be current, up-to-date, which will give you the latest to make a decision relevant to what is happening today.
Second, who wrote it? Look for the author’s details, are they qualified to write on the topic? Can you look up their details to get an idea of who they are and what they are interested in? Some people have an agenda, perhaps trying to push a treatment, or a product they want you to buy not because it necessarily helps, but because they get some money from sales. Look for information from accredited websites, such as MS societies and government websites. If you can’t find a person or organisation listed as the author of the article you’re reading, you should question it’s merit and validity.
Third, who published it? If it’s a scientific article are you reading the original article from the scientific journal or are you reading the pop-science report on the results? Sometimes the results of a study can be obscured when reported in popular media and lead people to conclusions different to those actually found in the study. If you are reading an article published elsewhere consider whether it is a reliable news source, such as a university media release or information provided by a service provider. Related to who wrote the article, it is important to consider if there is a conflict of interest, if the publisher is likely to gain from the information in the article.
Fourth, what is the tone of the article? Is it clickbait? Claiming an amazing result, a cure, the answer to everything? Articles that are sensational are usually not completely truthful. Any article that feels sensational rather than measured in it’s tone should be treated suspiciously and taken with a grain of salt. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t amazing results related to MS research, but these results will never be reported by scientists in a sensational way, only ever in a measured and particular way.
Lastly, does it cite any sources? Is it a blog (like this one) on a personal website, or a media report on some experimental results? Do they link to any articles supporting the statements that are made by the author? Do they link to any original scientific articles and are they accessible? You can look into the articles if they are linked, and if you can’t access them as they are behind a paywall there are options. You can email the lead researcher to ask for a copy of their paper, or you can look up each of the researchers on the paper and learn more about them and their research on their websites. This will help you determine the value of their work and validity of their research. You will also be able to see if they have any obvious conflicts of interests.
It is completely natural to want to learn more yourself, especially whilst you are in between appointments, awaiting results, or you feel like your health practitioners haven’t given you enough guidance on what you should be doing for your health. There is so much information at our fingertips on our phones and computers and we should be able to use that information to make decisions about our health. However, we need to be careful that we are not misled and end up in a worse position because of someone’s specious article. These tips should help you to find the information you need and determine it’s validity, and from there you can make informed and intelligent decisions regarding your health, as we all should be able to.