Finding reliable information


As a patient and user of healthcare services, there may be times when you wish to do a bit of personal research. Perhaps you have a new diagnosis, or maybe your doctor or other healthcare practitioner has suggested a particular procedure or course of treatment, and you want to know more. But where do you look?

We look at some of the possible sources of information and consider their reliability.

Where do you look for reliable medical information?

First, let’s look at ‘official’ webpages, like NHS Choices.

These pretty much have to be reliable and accurate, because of the government backing. It’s fair to say that you can trust what you find.

What about the medical press?

This varies widely, from academic publications like the British Medical Journal (BMJ), through to popular health sites like WebMD, and even sites like Medstars*. Sources like these have a reputation to consider, so they ought to be pretty reliable. But there is a huge difference between a journal which has a strong peer review system, and a popular magazine. And even a peer review system didn’t stop Andrew Wakefield’s research on MMR, subsequently totally discredited, being published in a reputable journal.

*All Medstars’ content is based on rigorous research and many of our blogs are co-created with our community of expert clinicians.

The general media is also on a broad spectrum.

The key is that journalists often work to deadlines, and have limited time to make up their minds about a story. They also need to sell newspapers. This adds up to the need to be sceptical about what you read, and check the original source.

Always be sceptical about what you read, and check the original source.

The medical and general press are also (mostly) not staffed by doctors or other healthcare professionals. They may, therefore, struggle to understand the implications of a piece of academic research. This is not helped by academic institutions desperate for media coverage putting out press releases that may exaggerate the importance of research findings.

For example, there is often confusion between correlations and causes. Just because two things often happen together does not mean that one causes the other, but press releases may infer this. And that, then, is likely to be what is written up, because it’s more interesting.

Providers and suppliers also often have detailed websites.

Many healthcare providers now provide information about all kinds of conditions and treatments. You might expect these to be reliable. But the trouble is that providers are paid when they provide treatment, including operations. It is therefore in their interests for patients to have treatment.

Pharmaceutical companies also provide plenty of information about the benefits of their products, and have often been successful in convincing both public and healthcare providers that branded medicines are more effective.

Our verdict? There is no single totally reliable source.

Everyone has their own axe to grind. The best option is to verify your information from more than one place, and preferably, check that they’re not using the same original source. It’s also worth approaching any stories of miracle cures with serious scepticism. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.


Medstars Concierge

Sometimes interpreting medical information and making the best decisions can be daunting and complicated. The Medstars Concierge is an affordable service to help guide you to better healthcare. Find out more.