Obtaining information in the medical field does not only pose theoretical or scientific problems—it also has very high stakes. Taking data and suggestions from providers who disseminate incorrect or incomplete information can lead to sickness or even death, because these sources provide ineffective or harmful treatment recommendations. What follows is a list of websites with reliable information about COVID-19 we recommend you consult regularly.
Ten years ago, concrete examples of the correlation between bad information and deteriorating health or death were relatively rare. The lives which have been claimed in recent weeks, because of the new coronavirus, confirm a reality already known to experts, namely, that opinions and beliefs based on false information have terrible consequences and can affect populations and health systems in their entirety.
The credibility and quality of online health information began to be examined by experts soon after the advent of the Internet. The large volume and complex nature of the information, but especially the almost imperceptible intertwining of rigorous scientific information with pseudo-scientific information, makes the quality assessment of online medical documents by non-specialists an almost impossible task. The problem is far from new. The pandemic has only amplified it.
Dozens of evaluation criteria have been proposed and they are related to:
– content quality (completeness and accuracy);
– credibility (mentioning authors’ names and accreditation);
– recency (display of date of the initial publication and the date of the last update);
– design, aesthetics, functionality, browsability, and more.
Moreover, various methods of evaluating or filtering medical information on the Internet have been designed and tested for different periods of time. Institutions and organizations have persistently tried to set up concrete tools to ensure users’ access to credible and rigorous scientific medical resources (codes of ethics for website developers, guides for secure browsing on health-related websites, quality seals or certificates, apps for the automatic quality assessment of medical information, and more). The “Health on the Net” (HON) Foundation and Code of conduct are among those that have endured over time.
Websites that meet HON’s set of credibility criteria can be recognized by the certificate awarded by this foundation. Unfortunately, studies have shown that meeting the HON criteria or other similar sets of criteria does not guarantee the quality of the content of those websites. In other words, the information may not be complete and scientifically accurate. This is important to know, because the display of a quality seal could induce a false sense of security and, implicitly, could pose potential dangers for users who do not have a secure system for evaluating the resources used.
The research on the quality of medical information on the Internet that I have carried out over the last 13 years together with my colleagues, who are doctors and students at the George Emil Palade University of Medicine, Pharmacy, Science, and Technology of Targu Mures, reveals that there is no quick and simple way to determine if and to what extent a website with medical data or advice is providing scientifically-proven information. To put it simply, there are two options.
The first, which requires an enormous investment of time and energy, would be for all of us to study medicine and, by becoming doctors, acquire the ability to identify recommendations based on rigorous scientific evidence. The second solution, which is more widely available, is to draw on the experience of medical professionals, whether family doctors or specialists. This option is effective and viable insofar as specialists assume, in addition to the role of clinicians, the mission of educating patients.
Regarding the information about the new coronavirus and the disease caused by it, a study conducted last year, under my supervision, by two medical students from our university, revealed that many resources accessible through a Google search were generally of poor quality, both in terms of completeness and accuracy. Moreover, we discovered that none of the quality indicators we assessed improved significantly from March to September 2020. In conclusion, the safest approach is to access those websites whose quality has been confirmed by specialists.
Websites with reliable information about COVID-19:
World Health Organization: who.int/health-topics/coronavirus and related pages;
European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control: ecdc.europa.eu/en/covid-19 and related pages;
European Medicines Agency: ema.europa.eu/en/humanregulatory/overview/public-health-threats/coronavirusdisease-covid-19 and related pages;
Johns Hopkins Medicine: hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/coronavirus and related pages;
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – USA: cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/your-health/about-covid-19.html and related pages;
National Health Service – UK: nhs.uk/conditions/coronavirus-covid-19/ and related pages;
National Institutes of Health – USA: covid19.nih.gov/treatments-and-vaccines and related pages.
Associate professor Dr Valentin Nădășan is a primary care physician specialised in hygiene, and a consumer health informatics expert at the George Emil Palade University of Medicine, Pharmacy, Science, and Technology of Targu Mures.