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Column: Ask The Pharmacist

To Google or not to Google

By Dr. Bob Anderson

Where do you go with your computer, tablet or cell phone to obtain health, medical or drug information on the internet? I bet most of us insert a key search word or phrase and go to Google or www.WebMD.com or perhaps another favorite app on our cell phone. But how accurate is the information? Can you trust the source?

Remember: Anyone can publish on the internet, which is largely unregulated. In terms of health and medical information, there is a wide range of quality. Studies have demonstrated much health information on the internet is often the modern day equivalent of the medicine man coming to town to sell his tonics and cures.

Evaluating a website

A recent internet survey by the Pew Foundation demonstrated 57 percent of us use the internet to search for medical information, often for someone else like a parent, grandparent or child.

The ABCs to evaluate a website are: Accuracy (are scientific studies cited?), Authority (credible source?), Bias (is this a paid site?), Currency (< 3-5 years?) and Comprehension (easy to understand and navigate?).

Here are some additional questions to consider in evaluating a website. Check the “About Us” tab to see who is responsible for the website and its content and what its mission or purpose is. Who pays for the site, especially with a .com URL? Does the website advertise or promote a product? Are recommendations based on opinion vs. evidence-based research studies?

All sites are not created equal in terms of accuracy. A few years back Scientific American reviewed 1,300 web searches on a focused topic and found only 44 percent of the recommendations were consistent with current medical guidelines. The most accurate websites had URLs with .gov or .org. Remember the primary mission of most .com commercial websites is not to educate the consumer but to generate money!

Accuracy of medical apps

Many of us use our mobile smartphones to search the internet, especially away from home. The October 2016 issue of the Journal of Managed Care and Specialty Pharmacy reported on the accuracy of 400 medical apps commonly available on either Apple or Android operating systems. The study reviewed 100 of the most popular paid apps, as well as the 100 most popular free apps for each system.

The results indicated the overall quality and usability of the paid apps was slightly better than the free apps; however, the free apps scored higher for privacy. Blood pressure and heart rate monitoring apps had the highest overall quality scores. The study indicates the need for an independent third-party clearinghouse to certify websites and apps for health and medical information.

One of the best and most accurate websites is www.medlineplus.gov. The site is broken down into alphabetized Health Topics, Drugs and Supplements, and Videos and Tools. This site is educational and includes ongoing clinical trials on many diseases, as well as journal article citations. This is a great site to go to when you are homebound on a rainy or snowy day, and we can expect of few of those in Big Canoe this winter.

Dr. Anderson is a professor emeritus from Mercer University, a sometime pharmacist at Northside Pharmacy in Jasper and a full-time resident of Big Canoe.

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