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Information Overload

How to Sort through the Slush to Find the Cancer Information You Need Online

by Abigail Jones, MLIS, MA

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Recently, a frustrated couple visited our library. They had just finished searching Google for testicular cancer information for their adult son. They asked, “Which of the 1,640,000 results can we trust? How do we narrow down the best information that will make sense to us?”

The flood of information that comes with a cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming. Let’s look at some ways to sort through that information without letting it become an all-consuming task.

Use caution when looking up health information on the Internet.
There is a lot of information online, but it can be hard to determine the quality or bias. The biggest challenge today is sorting out what is reliable, up to date, and objective. One way is to refer to trusted sources and then look at websites they recommend. Visit your medical center or hospital website. It may link to trustworthy associations and nonprofit organizations.

Ask your doctor. Doctors who treat people with cancer often belong to professional groups. These groups usually have a website with a section with information that is written in plain language aimed at cancer survivors and their supporters.

Another way to start a search is with federal government-sponsored websites, such as those of the National Institutes of Health (nih.gov) or the National Library of Medicine (nlm.nih.gov). These sites link only to information that must meet strict codes of ethics and readability.

Author of Article photo

Abigail Jones

Evaluate the site.
Websites offering medical information should be relevant and up to date. They should reflect current medical research and discoveries. There are no guarantees that information is accurate, but here are qualities to look for:

  • Authority A qualified organization or person sponsors the site. Qualifications are easy to find and include contact information. Often there is an “About Us” section where you can find this information.
  • Bias The information is given objectively. What is the purpose of the Web site? Who pays for the content? Is the information free of charge to you? If there is advertising, it should be labeled as such, for example “From our sponsor” or “Advertisement.”
  • Currency The website is up to date, and each article includes the date it was written. Links are current. You can see when the site was last updated.
  • Content Information is presented in a logical way. The links and resources make sense. Look for “portal” health information websites that search predetermined links for you and then present them in a directory.
  • Evidence Look for evidence that the information is medically accurate and based on research. Authors should be identified by name and credentials. Examples are “Jane Smith, MD,” or “Copyright 2009, American Cancer Society.”

Pay attention to the domain name.
When your search engine gives you an overwhelming number of results, look closely at the address of each website. A website address is called a Uniform Resource Locator, or URL. Each URL ends with a domain name. Here are some common domains:

  • .com – commercial business
  • .edu – educational institutions
  • .gov – government agencies
  • .mil – military
  • .net – network organizations
  • .org – nonprofit organizations

Look for health information on Web sites with addresses that end with .edu, .gov, and .org. These sites tend to meet library standards of authority, objectivity, and currency. Commercial health information sites (ending with .com) include pharmaceutical and medical product companies. These have important information for health consumers, but they are also selling a product. Balance what you find on a drug company website with another search on a .gov or .org site.

Use these tips and transform yourself into a savvy web searcher. For further help, remember you can always ask your local librarian – the original human search engine.

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Abigail Jones is the consumer health librarian at the Library for Health Information, part of The Ohio State University Medical Center in Columbus, OH. To contact her, call (614) 293-3707.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2010.

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