Health Information Credibility Term Paper

 

HEALTH INFORMATION RESOURCE CRITERIA

Health information resources are plentiful, particularly since the advent of the Internet. Reputable organizations, academic institutions, and accredited medical professionals maintain public websites, providing valuable health information freely available to patients and students in a convenient format. But the Internet environment is not restricted to qualified professionals, and just about anyone with access to a computer can publish anything he wants on virtually any subject of interest, whether or not he actually knows anything about the topic at all.

Even without access to an Internet connection, volumes of hard copy health information resources are no further away than the nearest public library. Books and other printed matter such as magazines and newspapers are slightly less convenient, but equally available to most. Books and other published forms of printed health information are more reliable than many Internet sources, but may also be inaccurate for several different reasons. To guarantee the quality and accuracy of health information, it is important to define objective criteria for evaluating the credibility of its sources.

Internet:

Because the Internet is completely unregulated, (except for criminal activity), there is absolutely no guarantee that any health (or other) information yielded in online searches is truthful or scientifically accurate. For every Internet source of reliable health information, there are dozens (or more) of just as nicely constructed websites that promote erroneous information. Sometimes, it is simply material published by well meaning, people who are under-educated and/or insufficiently qualified to write about health topics. Other times, unreliable health information is published for profit, to promote commercial products and services, which, by definition, means that it is subjective and likely biased. It is also possible for commercially motivated health information sources to provide high quality information, but without criteria for evaluating various information sources, it is impossible to distinguish authoritative health information sources from unreliable sources.

Examples of reliable Internet sources of health information would include the online websites of government agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (http://www.hhs.gov/)and the National Institute of Health (http://www.nih.gov/).Private (i.e. non-governmental) online sources of accurate health information would include the websites of accredited medical institutions of higher learning, such as Dartmouth Medical School (http://dms.dartmouth.edu/)and websites of licensed, board certified physicians, such as http://orthodoc.aaos.org/Grelsamer/.Examples of unreliable Internet sources of health information would include online encyclopedias such as Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.org/),which is not carefully monitored for the accuracy of its information, even though it may be perfectly suitable as a starting point for informal research. Other examples of erroneous health information available online are those featuring so-called “alternative” medicine such as http://www.oralchelation.com/,which promotes unscientific and dangerous “chelation” therapy. So-called “naturopathic” organizations such as the Colon Therapists Network (http://www.colonhealth.net/colon_hydrotherapy/chthrapy.htm) maintain websites that advocate absurd quasi-medical procedures that have no scientific basis and are of no medical value, whatsoever.

Books:

Unlike the Internet, most of whose features and capabilities are available free of charge, book publishing requires a much more substantial financial commitment.

Generally, only professional book publishing houses have the resources to print bound books by the thousands, which is one reason why published books are more likely to be accurate than a random website that comes up in a simple Google search. However, in the last few years, the book publishing industry has changed significantly. Print on demand (POD) is a new, Internet-based publishing service that allows anybody to publish a book for a very small fraction of the cost of traditional publishing. Some POD services exercise at least minimal editorial controls and reject poorly written material, but their standards are much less stringent than traditional publishers, and some POD services publish anything for which a writer is willing to pay. Instead of printing thousands of copies of each book that must be sold to realize a profit, POD allows authors to simply format their text into PDF files, and print only one book at a time, to fill individual orders.

Even traditionally published books can be unreliable sources of health information, for a variety of other reasons. Accredited medical professionals sometimes disagree and write books detailing conflicting points-of-view; books whose information is now outdated are sometimes still available in libraries; commercial enterprises sometimes commission books to promote their health-related products and services through inaccurate or biased information; and so-called “vanity” publishing has always presented an opportunity to publish one’s own books for anyone willing to spend five or ten thousand dollars for the privilege.

One particularly good example of reliable authoritative non-fiction book (in general) is Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe, by Graham Allison (2004), and a good example of a health information resource book intended for lay audiences is What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Knee Pain and Surgery, by Ronald Grelsamer, M.D. (2002). According to his author’s biography, “Graham Allison is a professor of Government at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and served as Special Advisor to the Secretary of Defense under President Reagan and as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Policy and Plans under President Clinton, where he coordinated DOD strategy and policy towards Russia, Ukraine, and the other states of the former Soviet Union.” According to the author’s biography, “Ronald P. Grelsamer, M.D. is the chief of hip and knee reconstruction at Maimonides Medical Center and a staff orthopedic surgeon at the NYU Hospital for Joint Diseases. A former clinical director of knee research at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York, he has been listed in Castle Connolly’s America’s Top Doctors and in New York Magazine’s “Best Doctors of New York”

Examples of unreliable health information in book form would include Hold it! You’re Exercising Wrong, by Edward Jackowski (1995), and the Complete Book of First Aid, by John Henderson, M.D. (1955), once the Medical Director of Johnson & Johnson Co., which, despite its age, was still available in a local public library.

According to Mr. Jackowski’s author biography, he “… is the founder and CEO of Exude Inc., the nation’s largest one-on-one motivational and fitness company.” The author does not appear to hold any health science degrees or any other related credentials.

Doctor Henderson, was once an authority on first aid medicine, but because his book predates the invention of modern Cardio Pulmonary Resuscitation (CPR), it advocates emergency techniques that have long-since been abandoned in favor of modern ones.

Magazines, Periodicals and Newspapers:

Subscription-based publications and those available for retail purchase often feature articles on health topics. In any given week, consumers read articles about a wide variety of medical issues ranging from the most serious, (such as heart disease and cancer), to the least serious, (such as male pattern baldness and toenail fungus). Some of these articles are written by professional scientific reporters, or even physicians, whose publications require them to use very diligent research standards. Other publications are much less strict and publish articles designed to increase readership rather than to disseminate accurate health information. Virtually any organization is capable of publishing its own magazine, including the Ku Klux Klan, communities of people who believe they are all survivors of UFO alien abductions, and those who maintain that NASA faked the lunar landings and all the other accomplishments of its space program.

Objective Criteria for Evaluating Sources of Health Information:

Freedom of Speech is an American constitutional right that allows anyone to publish almost anything he wishes, with very few categories of exceptions to that principle (Dershowitz, 2002). Consequently, it is necessary to employ objective criteria to evaluate the reliability of printed information, particularly in the case of health-related material, because of the potential for harm in following erroneous medical advice.

The credentials of authors (or their absence) is one important indication of whether or not they are legitimately expert in their fields, and the Internet provides an easy way of confirming the information included in their books, published articles and websites. Health information published by government agencies is likely to be factual, but should also be cross-referenced with the most reliable sources of such information, such as peer-reviewed medical journals and material published by fully accredited medical institutions of higher learning.

Board certified, practicing medical professionals are generally good sources of reliable health information, but sometimes they may choose to write about topics outside of their formal training. Likewise, because medicine is a dynamic field that always progresses, even sources that were qualified as authoritative when they were published can provide erroneous information, in light of more modern knowledge. More subtle types of questionable health information sources include materials published or commissioned by for-profit business entities, including those run by qualified health professional, in that the information they choose to publish might be perfectly accurate, but presented out of context or in the absence of equally relevant information to the contrary, such as about risks and contraindications not mentioned.

Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the consumer or student of health sciences to confirm the published credentials of authors, to double check any information that is more than a year or two old, to make sure that material published by credentialed authors relates to their specific areas of expertise, and to establish that companies publishing websites, books, and magazines are recognized as legitimately unbiased and without a financial interest in promoting goods or services dependent on their published health information, regardless of its factual accuracy.

References

Allison, G. (2004). Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe.

New York: Times Books.

Dershowitz, a. (2002) Shouting Fire: Civil Liberties in a Turbulent Age.

New York: Little Brown & Co.

Grelsamer, R. (2002). What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Knee Pain and Surgery. New York: Warner Books.

Henderson, J. (1955) the Complete Book of First Aid. New York: Bantam Books.

Jackowski, E. (1995). Hold it! You’re Exercising Wrong. New York: Simon & Schuster


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