Your Health, Online

It's now commonplace for people to look for medical information on the internet. But not all the websites are accurate. That leaves some people wondering which websites to trust. Houston Public Radio's Laurie Johnson has more.

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Try googling breast cancer. You'll get more than 44 million results.

"I wouldn't try going and googling 'breast cancer' because of all the hits. You're going to get the good, the bad and the ugly."

That's Sherry Snook. She's been diagnosed with breast cancer four times. The last time she was at stage four, the worst diagnosis. Her doctor told her she wouldn't survive. Three years later, she's cancer-free.

"I did a lot of online research because I wasn't taking any advice at face value. I wanted to know more because this was for me. And a lot of websites are out there, a lot of groups that you can talk to on the internet are out there that are really helpful. Every once in a while you find those that are just out there by themselves, but most of them out there are really good resources."

Snook is correct in her assessment of online sources. Researchers at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center
and the UT Health Science Center reviewed online breast cancer information. Dr. Elmer Bernstam is an associate professor at UT Medical School and the leading author of the research.

"Most information on breast cancer that one would encounter just by searching the internet for common search terms is generally accurate, about 95 percent."

Researchers estimate more patients seek health information√é¬ĺonline than from their physician.
So it's good news that most of the information is accurate. But Bernstam says it's hard to tell which websites are wrong.

"There have been literally thousands of different quality indicators that people have proposed. Examples of quality indicators might be kind of the clarity in publishing rules that you might think of in journalism, such as is there an author identified for this piece, are conflicts of interest identified, those kinds of things. So those would be examples of quality criteria and it turns out that at least for online information and at least for breast cancer it does not seem to be the case."

In fact, websites with published authors and frequently updated information are just as likely to be inaccurate as any other site.

Bernstam says people should use the internet for health research. But he says do it with a skeptical attitude. And bring all your online information to your doctor.

Laurie Johnson. Houston Public Radio News.

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