Reliable Information

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Jenny Epstein

Both alternative and establishment medical sources can knowingly and unknowingly provide inaccurate or detrimental health information. Both types of information require the reader to suspend judgment and rely on the information source as the expert. With the increasing use of written information from a proliferation of organizations to make health care decisions, it is essential that readers have the ability to make assessments of what they are reading.


The amount of health related information available on the Internet is more than overwhelming. It ranges from the slick, professional web pages for every new drug on the market to grass-roots chat groups. Trying to sort out this plethora of information on the Internet as to what is beneficial or accurate can be very difficult. To facilitate this, reliability assessment needs to be further developed as a part of health care information. Students in conventional medical professional schools are taught to view medical literature critically, assessing the statistical methods used, the intent of the authors, who sponsored the study, and if the outcome is plausible. The general public needs to have similar tools for assessing health information.


Medical literature should be read from a critical stance. In an attempt to create a more equal balance for decision making, physicians (and other health professionals) may present a variety of treatment options a patient can choose from. Patients are expected to know enough about these options to make their own choices but the reality is, many times patients are simply not in a position to make these assessments. Not only do people not have the medical knowledge base, they also have not been trained to look at a health care decision from a perspective that pulls in many different social aspects that effect health.
By examining health information from a perspective that places a problem or decision in the complete context of a person’s life, reliability of the information can be assessed by the general public. There is a need to educate people beyond the individual effects of causality, to get beyond the conservative perspective of presenting information that describes problems and solutions in a simplistic, isolated manner. In conservative (or scientific) thinking, issues are broken down into minute parts that have no interconnection. The historical and political realities that create the environment that medical problems exist in, are not considered relevant or to even exist. This is how health information is usually presented. By placing this information into a relevant context, the general public can assess reliability. People will then be able to answer questions for themselves: Does this relate to me? Does this fit into my life experience? Answering these questions help determine reliability of the information.
Besides putting information into a social perspective, the bias of the authors must be acknowledged. In “Where There is No Doctor” (1) a variety of treatments for common ailments are presented, both western and folk medicine, which the author considers harmful or ineffective. These opinions are the authors, but their bias is transparent. The author has made clear what their perspective is and the reader can make their own opinions accordingly. In the US, commercial interests distort much of the information people receive on health. The bias of this information is not transparent. An example of this is the official food pyramid produced by the USDA. Due to pressure from the dairy and meat industry, revisions of the pyramid placing meat and dairy products in a less favorable, but more healthy position, are not accepted (2).
Patterns of information reliability assessment already takes place in lay medical chat groups. Discussion focuses on sorting out the reliability of information received from various sources such as medical professionals, direct to patient advertising, friends, family, and social networks that supply information support. Another common technique to establish reliability in chat groups is validation. For example, the discussion of a side effect that has been dismissed by a medical professional can get verification online from another patient or health care professional with a similar experience. Reliability assessment needs to be further developed as a part of health care information.


Reliability of the source, attitudes of the information source and the motivation of the author of the advice are all important considerations that people must consider when assessing health information. Health information must have embedded in it methods for the reader to come to their own reliability assessment. These methods should follow the same guidelines that are used by medical professionals to assess the literature.This is especially important when it comes to assessing information about situations that the reader is not familiar with. Guidelines must be included that allow the reader to assess the reliability of the information. These guidelines include the context of where the information coming from.

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