In this blog, Dr Paula Byrne, post-doctoral researcher with the University of Galway, explains the difficulty – and importance of – knowing whether health information is true, and explains how iHealthfacts – a website where the public can fact-check things they read and hear about health – aims to help.
Image: Misinformation on the web, by Carlos PX.
Take Home Points
Does swimming in a cold sea improve your health? Can deodorant cause breast cancer? Does exposure to WIFI cause brain cancer?
These are some of the interesting questions asked of iHealthFacts, a new health fact-checking website set up by the University of Galway in Ireland.
Nowadays we can be overwhelmed by information. We read or hear advice on health on social media, from influencers, from friends, neighbours and family, as well as from health authorities and the government. There are many things that we are told are supposedly good or bad for our health, we call these health ‘claims’. How do we know whether they’re true? There seems to be just too much information out there.
In recent times, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a greater awareness of ‘mis-information’ and ‘dis-information’. Some researchers explain that these words have different meanings. Mis-information is when somebody says something that is not true but doesn’t intend to harm or deliberately mislead another person. Dis-information, on the other hand, is when someone sets out to mislead. Fact-checking can help deal with both.
While there are lots of fact-checking websites out there, we think iHealthFacts is the only one run by trained health researchers.
How iHealthFacts works
iHealthFacts was first set up during the COVID-19 pandemic, when people needed information very quickly and when rumours, half-truths and misinformation were circulating. These claims were often about how people were affected by COVID-19, and about possible treatments for, and medicines that supposedly prevented, COVID-19. More recently, the website has started to answer all sorts of health-related questions.
The website works like this:
Someone asks a question about a health claim
A member of the public submits a question to iHealthFacts about something they’d like to find out about. For example, one person had heard that screen time before bed (for example, browsing on your mobile phone) makes it more difficult to sleep and asked us if it was true.
We look for evidence
When we want to check if something is true or not, we need to look for evidence that either supports or disproves it. To do this, we need to see if anyone has done research or studies to back it up. If there is research out there on the topic, we have a system for choosing the best type of An investigation of a healthcare problem. There are different types of studies used to answer research questions, for example randomised controlled trials or observational studies. to answer a question. Sometimes, the ideal study has not been conducted.
Usually, the best type of evidence to help inform decisions is a systematic review of studies. Here’s a video that explains how information is gathered and combined from lots of studies into a systematic review:
If In systematic reviews we search for and summarize studies that answer a specific research question (e.g. is paracetamol effective and safe for treating back pain?). The studies are identified, assessed, and summarized by using a systematic and predefined approach. They inform recommendations for healthcare and research. are not available, we search for individual studies. We also search for statements from trustworthy health agencies like the World Health Organization, who may have advice or recommendations on the topic. We use all this information to create our answer. The answer will also say how good and certain we think the studies are.
Sometimes, we might not find the perfect study that answers our question. If that’s the case, we always let people know about any gaps or uncertainties. We can then suggest that more research is needed to fill these gaps and help us better understand the issue.
Why you can trust iHealthFacts
All of this helps increase the accuracy and reliability of our answer. After we investigate a health claim and write a draft of our answer, another researcher checks it independently. Then, a healthcare expert and a member of our team who represents the public also review the answer. Finally, our health journalist gives it a final check to make sure everything is easy to understand. We do all of this to make sure our information is trustworthy and helpful for everyone.
Our use of the best available evidence, guidance from trustworthy organisations and acknowledgement of uncertainties contribute to the accuracy and reliability of our answer. As well as that, we don’t stand to gain or lose financially depending on the claims we publish.
So, what did we find out about screen time and sleep? Firstly, we found that there wasn’t very strong evidence on the topic, even though lots of studies explored the connection between screen time and sleep in children, teenagers and young adults. These studies suggest that looking at screens can affect when, how long and how well people sleep. The blue light emitted by screens limits the production of melatonin, the hormone that controls your sleep-wake cycle. You can see our full answer here, including advice by the World Health Organisation and some things to remember when weighing up a health claim.
Helping people think about help claims
As well as answering questions about health, iHealthFacts has another purpose. This is to help people develop skills and ways of thinking about health claims so that they can figure out for themselves if something is true or not. To do that we link each of our answers to a website called That’s a Claim. This website uses ‘Key Concepts’ to explain how claims about things that affect our health can be wrong, and outlines questions we can ask to judge whether a claim is accurate.
The website starts out by explaining that a ‘treatment’ is something you can do for your health, for example, taking a medicine or starting to exercise. An ‘effect’ is something that a Something done with the aim of improving health or relieving suffering. For example, medicines, surgery, psychological and physical therapies, diet and exercise changes. makes happen, like making you feel better or worse or curing someone who is sick.
For example, when we are sick, we might think that we always need treatment. This an example of ‘faulty logic’. Treatments can help make people better when they are sick or prevent them getting sick. On the other hand, people may get better by themselves without any treatment and sometimes treatment can make things worse.
It’s important to know what would happen if you didn’t use a treatment. For example, most people with sore throats get better without an antibiotic. Taking antibiotics can be harmful as they can cause nausea or diarrhoea. More importantly, over-use of antibiotics has caused bacteria (that cause infections) to become resistant to antibiotics. We now have ‘super-bugs’ that cannot be treated by most antibiotics, as explained in this video by Dr Shanika Crusz from the Royal College of Pathologists.
Another important consideration is that we cannot know if a treatment works unless it has been tested by being compared to another treatment or no treatment at all. Without comparison it is difficult to say that the treatment caused the effect. This is why we need studies or Clinical trials are research studies involving people who use healthcare services. They often compare a new or different treatment with the best treatment currently available. This is to test whether the new or different treatment is safe, effective and any better than what is currently used. No matter how promising a new treatment may appear during tests in a laboratory, it must go through clinical trials before its benefits and risks can really be known. that test new treatments compared with other treatments or compared with not doing anything.
These are examples of ways to think about health claims that improve our critical thinking. Critical thinking involves learning how to ask the right questions, so we are to be able to see all the angles before making decisions.
What we hope to achieve through iHealthFacts
To make good decisions about health we need to know how accurate the information we’ve received is and whether we have enough relevant information on which to base decisions. It is also important that our decisions fit in with our own preferences, circumstances and values; what you might decide to do based on the information you have may be different to what another person might choose. This is particularly true when we don’t have the full facts on a matter. Here’s a great blog from Evidently Cochrane on ways to make good health decisions.
When people have enough accurate information and the right skills, they become clearer thinkers. It becomes easier to feel confident in one’s own opinions and figure out whether arguments stand up.
We hope that iHealthFacts is a useful tool to help people deal with information about health, medicine and science in general. We believe that science and medical research is for us, the people, and they should not be out of reach or difficult to understand. Even rocket science shouldn’t be rocket science!
Read a press release from the University of Galway about iHealthFacts (published 19 May 2023).
Please note, we cannot give specific medical advice and do not publish comments that link to individual pages requesting donations or to commercial sites, or appear to endorse commercial products. We welcome diverse views and encourage discussion but we ask that comments are respectful and reserve the right to not publish any we consider offensive. Cochrane UK does not fact check – or endorse – readers’ comments, including any treatments mentioned.
Paula Byrne is the senior post-doctoral researcher on the iHealthFacts project.