Reprinted from Eating Disorders Review
May/June Volume 27, Number 3
May/June Volume 27, Number 3
On the Information Superhighway, there are many exits you hope your patients won’t take. Misinformation about supplements, “miracle diets,” and pro-anorexia (pro-ana) websites are just a few of the wrong turns that lead to invalid and sometimes harmful information. Families also report great frustration when they try to obtain clear-cut results from studies reported from individual eating disorder treatment programs. Few websites report data-based outcomes, and the information offered may not be derived from rigorous research.
Millie Plotkin, MLS, with Craig Johnson, PhD and Carrie Arnold, MPH, from the Eating Recovery Center, Denver, offer some helpful hints for sorting out useful from useless information on the Internet. Plotkin said one positive note is that professionals and consumers alike report seeking information from the websites of professional eating disorders organizations such as BEDA, iaedp, and NEDA. One less positive trend, however, was reflected in a survey showing that more than half (57.58%) of professionals regularly use social media for health information, compared with 76.58% of consumers.
Another factor complicating the process of finding valid information on the Internet is the marked increase in the number of scientific research articles being posted. Plotkin added that results from many studies also seem to contradict one another.
Six guidelines for grading validity
Plotkin offered six guidelines for evaluating the validity of a study. “When you see a study, she said, “first, look at the type of research. Was this a pilot study, a longitudinal study, a case-control study, a case report, or a review?” Next, she advised looking at the size of the study sample, as well as the use of randomization, the statistical analysis, where the study was published and, very importantly, who funded the research.
Judging news stories
Patients can be advised that “not all news stories are created equal,” according to Plotkin, and professionals can advise them to look for certain details within any news story. Some details include: where was the story published, what are the writer’s credentials, who specifically was interviewed, and who was quoted? That is, did the writer talk to people who weren’t involved in the study to get an unbiased opinion about the results? Last, is this a true news story or merely a press release?
Evaluating eating disorders websites
Many of the same details apply when evaluating the validity of information presented on eating disorders websites, Plotkin noted. First, who publishes the website? Check to see when the information was last updated—once placed online, materials can remain for a long time, even if the information becomes outdated. Another good question to ask is, was the information on the website reviewed by professionals? And, is the website trying to sell you something? Finally, does the site give references for the information? Plotkin showed the results of a study by Smith et al. (Adolesc Psychiatr Nurs. 2011. 24:33) showing the percentage of websites that fully describe and include DSM-IV criteria. The highest percentage was 15.8% for bulimia. Criteria for the diagnosis of anorexia nervosa were given on only 13% of websites. In the same study, while 92% of the sites provided options for treating patients with AN/BN, only 36% outlined treatment options for patients with eating disorders not otherwise specified (EDNOS).