Back in my final days in finance, I spent many hours online reading health and nutrition blogs. It isn’t an uncommon first step for the “I hate what I do and need to do something worthwhile” moment that many of my colleagues in this field experienced. But at the time, I thought of myself as so unique: look at this community I discovered! They are so passionate and excited about health and nutrition! So free with their thoughts, ideas, diets, pictures of salad and oatmeal!
What I soon realized though was that the blogging community was missing one thing: expertise. While there were a handful of bloggers with a background in health or nutrition, many openly admitted that they started blogging as a way to track their own dieting. Their blogs began as food diaries, and amazingly fostered a worldwide community of like-minded people interested in health and nutrition.
But interest is not the same as expertise. While a handful of the most popular bloggers attended weekend retreats or even started their own wellness conferences, one glaring fact remained: there was no education behind the pages of online tips and advice.
It was this exact issue that prompted me to become a blogger. While there are educated bloggers out there, there are also a lot of “Miss Informations,” well-intentioned individuals who are passionate about health and nutrition, but who shouldn’t be doling out free advice to the masses. Whether these bloggers recognize it or not, they are influential, and their reach is infinite. According to Envision Solutions, LLC, 13.6 million American adults were blogging about health as of August 2008, and American blog readers are reported to number between 57.0 and 94.1 million. But of those 13.6 million bloggers, only half actually work within the health profession.
So, how can we know if the information in health and wellness blogs is accurate and trustworthy? Before you act on information found online, here are some important questions to ask about the health blogs you encounter.
Who is the author?
Doctors, nurses, and dietitians need to undergo years of education to be considered “experts,” yet there are no professional standards or requirements for starting a health or wellness blog. In fact, according to a recent study in the International Journal of Medical Informatics, blogging has never been easier or required less professional or technological education. Identifying the author of a blog is critical in determining whether or not the information is credible.
Be wary of any blog that does not easily identify the author or the author’s credentials. There is nothing stopping a blogger from misrepresenting himself fraudulently. Researchers in a 2008 study noted, “whether or not blog authors are genuinely members of the health professions, they represent themselves as such and are likely to be seen as such.” Verifying the identity of the author – and even doing a quick background check on his or her credentials – will ensure that you are receiving information from a health professional rather than a health fanatic.
Tips for identifying blog authors: Immediately check the site for reference to authorship. If the author’s biography is difficult to find, the author didn’t want it found. Remember that the internet does provide many other tools for seeking out information; use an online search engine to verify a doctor or registered dietitian’s background. Linkedin is also a great way to check on someone’s background and professional associations.
What is the quality of the health information that is discussed?
Even if the author of a blog is a health professional, there is still no guarantee that the information posted will be completely accurate. Mistakes, inconsistencies and missing information are common within blog posts, and according to the International Journal of Medical Informatics research, markedly worse in health-related blogs due to the lack of regulation.
As an end-user, you may not have time to verify facts and claims posted online, but there are programs in place that do just that. The Health on the Net Foundation is a non-governmental organization that aims to connect users with valuable medical information. They provide the HONCode, a voluntary certification that sites can submit their content for in exchange for a “seal of approval.” Not every post on a site is vetted completely before going online – the programs can only manage to assess the overall quality of a blog. However, bold claims about products, research posted without properly cited sources, and references to unjustified treatments are examples of potentially dangerous information that would draw the attention of these organizations.
Tips for determining the quality of health information: If information seems too good to be true, it is most likely inaccurate. Do not expect to go online and find answers that you wouldn’t get directly from a health professional. If you are unsure about the veracity of a health claim, be a vigilant reader and check the references or search for the same information from another source, ideally a site associated with a government agency or hospital.
What is the motivation behind the posted material?
Blogs are useful forums for health professionals to reach the public, but remember that professionals are not the only ones looking for access. Commercial advertising is often found on blogs, and should make you second-guess the information you are reading.
If you are reading a blog that is touting the benefits of a specific health supplement or product, do a quick study of the blog author and any funding sources. Once again, the “About this Site” area can be extremely useful for answering some simple questions. Is the blog constantly discussing the antioxidant benefits of tea? Perhaps Lipton is a sponsor. Is the author, previously against vitamin supplements, suddenly advising her readers to take mega-doses of vitamin C? Look for an advertisement running on the side of the blog. These simple associations are easy for the careful reader to catch; if the author seems to have an agenda, a quick dig into the site should uncover some useful information.
Tips for determining a blog’s commercial associations: The first thing to look for is banner advertising across the top or down the sides of the blog. Then, read through some recent posts and see if the products being reviewed are also being advertised. If so, those products were most likely sent to the author for free and reviews shouldn’t necessarily be taken at face value. Additionally, use the “About this Site” section of the blog to determine any commercial funding or associations.
I know this is a sticking point for many bloggers, as we receive tons of free stuff at conferences, in gift bags, or shipped directly to us for review. And most bloggers will tell readers that opinions aren’t swayed by free merchandise. But just the mention of a product on the blog gives the manufacturer free advertising, and and most bloggers have told me that they would be more likely not to review a product at all if they didn’t like it, versus giving a negative review.
There are more health blogs on my current reader written by entertaining, sarcastic, witty, and knowledgeable non-experts than those written by a registered dietitians or health professionals. I don’t believe that blogging should be our #1 resource for health and nutrition information, nor do I believe RDs and doctor’s are the only educated health professionals out there. But I do believe, if you are going to follow a diet, start an exercise regiment, purchase a product, or take advice from someone online, it should be someone who knows what she’s doing. Two weekend seminars on nutrition or a 9-week correspondence course does not an expert make. Be vigilant about what you read and what advice you take – it really is your health that is on the line.
- The Aspiring RD