The number of organisations in the UK alone that produce health information for the public is estimated to be in the thousands. Add to these the number of organisations worldwide that can be accessed via the Internet and it’s easy to understand why the average person in the street feels overwhelmed with information and confused about what to trust and what to ignore.
When you add to the sheer volume of resources the fact that many of those searching for information will be under stress, anxious and unwell the importance of easily recognisable high quality, trustworthy information becomes vital.
How and where people look for information about their health has changed dramatically over the past two decades. Although most patients get the information they need from face-to-face meetings with their health professional, there is also a whole range of other options for the individual who wants to know more. That person can go online and read web sites and blogs, visit online communities and virtual worlds, listen to podcasts and contribute to social networking sites.
Since the introduction of the Information Standard the task of searching for good quality evidence-based information has become easier, although this can still be daunting. Looking out for the Information Standard logo is useful and there are also other quality marks such as the Plain English crystal mark and the HON code mark for websites that can help you, or service users to choose information.
Patients want information which meets their needs and is produced in a format that they can understand. The Information Strategy “The Power of Information: putting all of us in control of the health and care information we need” (Department of Health 2012), details the need for everyone to have access to the high quality information they need to make choices about their healthcare.
This topic area covers techniques for searching for information in all formats (electronic, paper, audio, video etc.) and recommended sources of good quality health information. The term ‘health information,’ in this instance, includes information on health and wellbeing for the public as well as information for patients on medical conditions.
This page aims to give you some pointers to finding the information you are looking for, whether you are looking for information for yourself, a relative or friend; are a healthcare or information professional needing to guide someone to a suitable source of information, or want to find up to date evidence on which to base a new information product.
1. Before starting your search, be clear about what it is you are looking for.
If you are looking for information on behalf of someone else you need to make sure you understand their requirements and expectations – for example what the subject area is, why the information is needed and how it will be used. It is essential to know the exact diagnosis of a known health condition as there are often many similar diagnoses, for example there are many types of leukaemia and arthritis. You will also need to be aware of any specific requirements such as audio or larger print versions.
Researching symptoms of undiagnosed conditions is particularly tricky as the same set of symptoms can apply to many different medical conditions. It is always best to advise someone see their doctor rather than try and diagnose from the internet or books.
2. Think about the nature of the information you hope to find.
How much information do you want – everything available or one good example? What format do you want the information in – print or electronic? What level of information is required – a brief introduction, something for the expert patient or the latest research? Overly technical health information can cause more confusion and worry than simpler text.
3. Look for information in a known and trusted source and evaluate what you find.
Try and look for information in a resource that has a quality assessment process or use sources that synthesise research evidence (for example, look for the Information Standard mark). Otherwise go to a respected organisational source within the NHS, commercial or voluntary sectors. If you need help appraising the information you find visit the Evaluating the quality of health information section. If you need to give out information that you are not sure about, give caveats and disclaimers.
In some circumstances it is possible to confuse health information with what may turn out to be an attempt to sell a product such as a complementary therapy treatment or a dietary supplement. Fact sheets, leaflets or websites which sell products can look like a genuine piece of health information. If looking for health information on the internet, in a library or in a book shop it is also important to make sure you know the country of origin of any information that you find. Some health information provided in other countries does not apply in the UK and vice versa.
You should also check to see who has written the information. Is it written by a doctor, nurse or other health professional or is it written by a journalist, patient or carer? If you want to know more about other people’s experiences then information written by a patient is more helpful, but if you want information about treatments a book written or assessed by a health professional is more appropriate.
Is your information up-to-date? This is particularly important if you want information about the latest treatments. Most health information is updated every one to two years. The information should have a publication date on it and a date when it is next reviewed.
4. Find out how to search most effectively.
Use appropriate search terms and techniques to get the most out of the resources you are using. In the Tools section you will find some guides to searching the Internet and more complex healthcare databases. But as a basic guide to searching an Internet search engine or simple database:
- Look for an ‘advanced search’ option to help you perform a more efficient and refined search
- Read the help or search tips pages, as these will tell you how best to enter and combine terms. Search facilities may support:
- Boolean logic (the use of AND and OR)
- Truncation (either automatically or with a symbol)
- Phrase searching using double inverted commas, eg “bird flu”
- Use any limits available to further refine your search, e.g. the language or origin of a resource
5. Finding more detailed information
For very detailed information on any aspect of a specific illness – search for reputable support group or charitable organisation eg: Diabetes UK, British Heart Foundation, Macmillan Cancer Support. Reputable websites will state who was involved with editing the material and how often it is reviewed or updated.
It is good to remember that when using a library that the librarians and other library staff are available to help you in your search both to find books and journals on the shelves and to search computer based resources.