How to Find Credible Health Information on the Internet

Wednesday, October 15, 2014
Pat Stricker, RN, MEd
Senior Vice President
TCS Healthcare Technologies

Case managers are burdened by heavy workloads, numerous tasks, and demanding time frames. In addition, they need to have a vast amount of knowledge about a myriad of health care topics (e.g., conditions and diseases; insurance and benefits; available financial and community resources; treatment protocols; clinical standards and guidelines; medications, including dosages, indications, and side effects; and many, many more). It is impossible for nurses to memorize everything they need to know. The constant pressure to provide the best possible care and stay up-to-date with current knowledge and practices is a daunting task for even the most qualified case managers.

I’m going to show my age here, but in the not too distant past, nurses learned from textbooks while in school and then continued their learning "on-the-job," and from journals and continuing education classes. There was no Internet!  Results of studies, new best practices, and new health care advances were presented in the news or written in journals fairly quickly, but did not become part of the mainstream education for everyone until after it was included in a textbook, which could take years.  Nurses answered patients’ questions by looking through books and journals, often having to get them from the hospital library. (I know, this all seems impossible to most of you, but it’s true). 

Nurses were not allowed to give any information that was not "reviewed and approved" first by their organization.  That meant they could use pre-approved information from textbooks, journals, or written materials, but websites, which were just coming online, were prohibited or blocked.  This was done because organizations wanted to assure that the information the nurses were giving to patients was validated for accuracy and contained references for documentation.  Unfortunately, that meant a lot of current, up-to-date information was not used, since the validation and approval process took time to accomplish. 

Contrast that with today. As soon as a study is released or a new innovation is announced, it is available to everyone on the Internet that day.  Not only has this speeded up the information process immensely, but it has also added exponentially to the amount of information that is available and the amount a nurse needs to know.  It is virtually impossible to be aware of all the information that is available. And patients now have access to most of this information at the same time as physicians and nurses. So, how can case managers keep up? 

A recent survey on "Mobile Device Internet and Social Medical Use and Habits" conducted by Wolters Kluwer Health surveyed 2.500 nurses to understand the use of devices, Internet, and social media in health care settings.  According to the respondents, 94% of their health care organizations now allow nurses to use the Internet for health care information (48% encourage access to online resources, 41% allow occasional use, and 5% only allow as a last resort).

Surprisingly, 64% also allow the use of Wikipedia, an open-source encyclopedia that allows anyone to add and edit information. About half of the organizations block the use of social media (e.g., Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and YouTube). These both scare me a bit, since there seems to be a bigger chance of misinformation coming from these sources. (Next month we’ll look at the survey’s findings for social Media).

The use of the Internet in the workplace has certainly helped to provide up-to-date health information. There are trusted, professional websites that can be used quickly by a nurse to find the information that will be most helpful to the patient.  Some organizations only allow access to specific "approved" websites, while others allow the nurses to make that determination, as long as they document the specific information given and the source.  Examples of reliable websites include government sites, such as:  Health.govHealthyPeople.govHealthFinder.govMedLine PlusNational Library of MedicineNational Institutes of Health for studies and clinical trials, National Guideline Clearing HouseCenters for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), etc.  

In looking for validated websites, organizations and nurses should look for those that display a "Health on the Net" seal.  The voluntary certification was first introduced in 1996 to standardize and raise the quality of health care information on the fast-growing Internet.  The Health on the Net Code of Conduct(HONcode) assures that the source and purpose of the data is presented and is done so based on basic ethical standards, so readers can be assured the healthcare information is reliable and credible.    

The Internet and its vast amount of information has certainly brought changes to the way nurses find answers to health care questions or how they research  new and innovative services, treatments, medications, etc.  It is a mecca of information and the quick access to reliable information allows health care professionals to better educate themselves and their patients.  Assisting patients to find credible information also encourages greater patient engagement and self-management.  However, we must remain vigilant to assure that only credible, reliable health care websites are used, that we check to see that the information is up-to-date, and that the source of the information given is carefully documented.

To contact Pat Stricker, email her at pstricker@tcshealthcare.comor call her at (530) 886-1700, ext. 215.