Strategies to Find Reliable – and Avoid Wacky – Health Web Sites

July 31, 2009 at 10:12 pm 1 comment

My friend Jan, a breast cancer survivor, told me about her use of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) Web sites and how she has developed a “wackiness filter” to determine which to pursue beyond an initial glance. Interested in learning if wackiness filters are common, I posted a question in twitter about what are the attributes of a Web site that makes you convinced it is “wacky” and what are the warning signals to you? I further asked if this was more of an issue with CAM.

I heard from S.R., who said, “I am in good health and have never had any health challenges. So, I am not sure how useful my strategy is. It’s all talk until then, no?” She looks for “wellness as opposed to disease.” Two of her strategies are reading books before going online and using the resources provided by graduate programs in CAM.

I am fairly receptive to alternative therapies. Being half (East) Indian helps me appreciate them more easily perhaps. But I have a strong Western bias for controlled studies and scientific evidence.

Favourite med resource is internet, but it is just one of the tools. I use my GP to confirm or point me in another direction. Hardly ever rely on her exclusively any more (she is overworked). I also have an old CPS (drug directory) — paper copy. I ask all my friends for their experiences, especially a friend of mine who is a Buddhist and extraordinarily accepting.

I don’t have the skill to understand random control studies; but tend to be cynical b/c of how they are funded. This means I tend to rely on people who interpret them for me like T. Colin Campbell (author of China Study). He is an especially good source because he too tries to integrate east and west, with a western sensibility.

Strategy is always to rely on corroboration – triangulation, isn’t that what researcher’s call it?

If a pharmaceutical company funds a resource, I am ten times more skeptical, with good reason.

For alternative therapies, I tend to read books first, then go to the web from there. Maybe the slower reading, and complete thoughts help me understand where I would be hesitant online. Alternative medicine does not spring from nowhere, and it is not difficult to figure out who is flaky and who speaks with authority borne from wisdom (unlike western medicine, imho). I often email authors; I love living in a world where this is possible.

I have looked at graduate programs in alternative medicine. They understand the western mind and what it takes to reassure (if only to get funding!). I have followed their resource links in the past, and liked what I found.

I never use Google to search for symptoms. The results are a mess.

My undergrad degree is in Biochemistry, and I am in the health care industry. So I am not uncomfortable with the lingo.

I try to pay a lot of attention to my pain signals from my body. I am not great at this, but I’m learning. (Personal correspondence, S.R., May 10, 2009)


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Lisa Gualtieri, PhD, ScM

Lisa GualtieriLisa Gualtieri is Assistant Professor at Tufts University School of Medicine in the Department of Public Health and Community Medicine. She is Director of the Certificate Program in Digital Health Communication. Lisa teaches Designing Health Campaigns using Social Media, Social Media and Health, Mobile Health Design, and Digital Strategies for Health Communication. Contact Lisa:


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