Professor Dr Ng Chirk Jenn
Senior Consultant in Family Medicine
Department of Primary Care Medicine,
University of Malaya Medical Centre
Words Lim Teck Choon
It is about time you bring your baby to be vaccinated, but your mother-in-law tells you that she has heard that overloading a little child’s body with too many vaccines can be dangerous for his health. “Wait, surely there is more about this online,” you think as you fire up the browser on your phone.
Let’s see… you type “vaccine”, “safety” and “children” into the search browser and sit back to scan through the search results. Well, the World Health Organization (WHO) website states that vaccinations are safe, but wait, this professional-looking website claims that vaccines cause autism and all pro-vaccine advocacy is part of a conspiracy to enrich pharmaceutical companies.
Confused, you come across arguments from people advocating for vaccination, as well as people claiming that there are alternatives to vaccines that are more effective and safe. Who do you believe? How can you be sure as to who is telling the truth?
The above is just one of the common examples of what happens when one is faced with too much information on the Web. It can be hard to sift through the facts often mixed with hype, misconceptions, commercial interests of various advertisers and even outright fake news.
Well, good news! HealthToday managed to catch up with Professor Dr Ng Chirk Jenn from University of Malaya, who has some useful tips to share when it comes to navigating through all the health-related information found on the World Wide Web.
IT’S A WILD, WILD WEB, BUT THERE ARE SIGNS TO TAKE NOTE OF ALONG THE WAY
#1 WATCH THE ADDRESS
The World Wide Web can be seen as a big neighbourhood in the virtual world. Therefore, everything online – whether they are websites, blogs, social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram – has an address. This address (called the uniform resource locator or URL) can be seen at the top of the browser when the page loads – see Image A.
Now, take a look at the last few alphabets in the address, after the second period.
Prof Dr Ng shares that these last few alphabets, called extensions in Internet-speak, tend to reflect the nature of the website.
A table of some of the most common extensions.
Note that there are many others.
Likely Nature of the Website
A commercial website. Because most websites are intended to generate revenue for their owners, this extension is the most frequent one you will encounter online.
A website of a non-profit organisation. Malaysian ones often have the extension “org.my”.
A website of an educational institution (such as a university). Malaysian ones often have the extension “edu.my”.
The website of a government-linked agency, ministry or department. Malaysian ones often have the extension “gov.my”.
HOT TIP! Generally, there is a higher likelihood of finding accurate unbiased health information in websites that end with the extensions “.org”, “.edu”, and “.gov”. This is because these websites are launched to educate and promote awareness first and foremost, often without any vested commercial interest on the owners’ part.
However! There are exceptions. Here are two examples: the World Health Organization’s website is www.who.int (“int” here stands for international organization), while our Director-General of Health posts the latest health updates at www.kpkesihatan.com. While looking at the extension is one way to have an idea of the nature of the website, you should also look at other aspects of the website first before you consume its contents.
#2 YOU DESERVE QUALITY, SO MAKE SURE YOU’RE GETTING IT
In real life, you will want advice only from people who know what they are talking about – the real experts, in other words.
It’s the same with the Web and social media. If you’re going to take advice, let’s make sure it’s good quality advice from people who are the real deal.
HOT TIP! Prof Dr Ng has a handy checklist for you to determine whether the content of a website is worth your time.
But! Anyone can be anybody on the Web, so it is likely that someone without the right qualifications can pass himself or herself off as an expert. However, the likelihood of fraud is reduced when the website implements the rest of the good practices on the checklist mentioned earlier. For example, if every article is reviewed by another expert, articles by frauds are less likely to slip through and get published.
ARE WE TOO TRUSTING?
According to the Internet Users Survey 2017 conducted by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission, about 80 percent of Malaysians “mostly trust” what they read online.
#3 UNBIASED, TRUSTWORTHY INFORMATION – THAT’S WHAT YOU WANT
There are concerns about bias and vested commercial interests in online content these days, especially when digital marketing is on the rise.
HOT TIP! Prof Dr Ng has some tips to help you make sure that you are getting information that is as unbiased as possible.
However! Some websites rely on sponsorships and advertisements to update and maintain the website. Hence, they are not necessarily an indication of unreliable or biased website content. In these cases, what is more important is that these websites are upfront about the presence of such elements, and they make the effort to indicate clearly the sponsored content while keeping the non-sponsored content free from bias.
Of course, you don’t necessarily have to rely on such websites when there are other websites with zero or little commercial interests involved (such as WHO, the US National Library of Health’s Medline Plus at www.medlineplus.gov and more) that may also offer the information you seek.
The choice is up to you. Just make sure that you are aware of what you are getting into when you visit a website.
#4 WHAT HAPPENS ON THE WEB… CAN BE DISCUSSED WITH YOUR DOCTOR
Prof Dr Ng assures that most doctors are happy to discuss health matters with their patients. It’s all in the art of communication, though: sometimes doctors become annoyed when their patients become aggressive, overly defensive over the content they found online or close themselves off from the possibility that the content they found may be inaccurate or even flat out wrong. Once that happens, there is nowhere to go but down.
Don’t let this dissuade you from discussing the things you read online with your doctor. In fact, it is always good to double- or even triple-check the accuracy of the things you come across online.
- To avoid any chances of miscommunication, print out the relevant web page(s) and bring it or them along with you for discussion.
- Keep an open mind. It is possible that your doctor is right and Dr Google may not be as accurate as you first thought! Having said that, you also don’t have to accept wholesale what your doctor tells you. So, feel free to ask questions and seek clarification during the conversation.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for a second or even third opinion from another doctor if you feel that you have hit a dead end with your current doctor. If a few doctors say the same thing that contradict what you find online, perhaps your online source is not so accurate after all!
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