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Research

Searching for evidence on the internet

Ever struggled to find reliable information about health-related issues on the internet? Read our how-to guide

Many people look for information about conditions and treatments on the Internet. The quality and reliability of information on the Internet is highly variable. What you find will be influenced by how and where you search. Information about treatments that are being marketed privately should be treated especially cautiously, as you would do when considering any purchase.

Before you Start

Clarify your question – think about:

  • Who are the people that you are interested in (e.g. children with cerebral palsy)?
  • What is the therapy, service or treatment that you are trying to find out about?
  • Do you want to know whether a treatment is more effective in comparison to something else (e.g. a different treatment, or usual care)?
  • What are the outcomes you are interested in (e.g. improved quality of life, increased movement)?

From this you will be able to write down your research question. Then think about different words to describe each part of the question before you start searching; these words are your search terms or keywords. If you find more, or less, information as you search then you can change your search strategy. It is always good to take the time to think carefully about your question and strategy before you begin as often it saves time later!

Good search terms to use for medical information are "EVIDENCE" when searching for specific interventions/treatments/therapies and the search term "GUIDELINES" when researching specific conditions.

Adding the word ‘EVIDENCE’ or ‘GUIDELINE’ to your search will help you get higher quality, and more reliable, search results. 

Starting to Search

The next stage is deciding where you are going to search. You can find some links to useful sites that we recommend below. This will make it quicker and you can trust the reliability of the information you will find. 

Some Useful Sites

The following sites are good places to search for evidence, and are the sites PenCRU usually search when writing their ‘What’s The Evidence?’ reports.

NHS evidence: A website provided by the NHS which enables access to authoritative clinical and non-clinical evidence and best practice. (Some areas do require an NHS Login and so are not available to the general public).

The Cochrane Library: This is a database of systematic reviews which summarise and interpret the results of high quality medical research. You can use the Cochrane Library to find the most up-to-date evidence about the effectiveness of a given intervention.

Trip: A searchable database of clinical evidence information.

NICE: This website contains UK guidelines aiming to improve health and social care. This national guidance is written by the National Institute for Clinical Evidence (NICE). 

PubMed: This is a large database of research studies. (A subscription is required to read the full versions of many of the studies in this database, however the abstracts can be read for free.)

Using Search Engines

Remember that general search engines, like Google, trawl through the Internet and automatically create collections of sites with no regard to the quality of the information. Search engines do not necessarily access the latest information. Some organizations pay to appear at the top of the first page of results.

Quality of Internet Sites

It may be useful to ask yourself a few questions to evaluate the quality of information being provided. Some suggestions for things you might want to think about are below. It is not always relevant or possible to answer all these questions but they may help you to think about the purpose of a website and whether the information is likely to be reliable.

Some questions to ask about a website to decide whether it is reliable and accurate

Authority

  • Does the site have an author?
  • If so what are the author's qualifications or expertise in the area?
  • Is the contact information for the author or the publisher given, if not then can you verify this person exists?
  • Are there any references or links to a reputable organisation or an educational institute?

Accuracy

  • Is the information accurate?
  • Can you tell if the information has been edited or checked in any way?
  • Is the information verifiable?
  • Does the site reference the sources used?
  • If the information is historical or biographical, are the dates of events accurate?
  • How does the information compare with what you already know?

Currency

  • Is the site up-to-date?
  • When was the information created or last updated?
  • Are the links current or have they expired?

Point of View

  • Whose point of view/perspective is given?
  • Is the author simply promoting an agenda/product?
  • To what extent is the information trying to sway the opinion of the audience?
  • Is there advertising on the page?

TIP: Be cautious when you come across sites with information about specific therapies. They will often have been written by the person who developed the treatment or therapy and so may not provide impartial or reliable information. Use a reliable site, such as the ones listed in this guide, to see whether the therapy in question has been subject to any high quality research, or add 'EVIDENCE' to your search and appraise the information critically.