Easing access to evidence-based information online

Increasingly, public health organisations and the public are grappling with how to filter out myth and misinformation online to find trustworthy, evidence-based health information.

Experts, skills and quick responses

Recent experiences during H1N1, Ebola and measles outbreaks have seen public health organisations begin to change their approach to providing health information online. Governments and public health organisations have begun to use three broad categories of online response:

  1. Ask for evidence – easing access to experts and making reliable information available
  2. Increasing digital skills – increasing people’s ability to find and critique digital information
  3. Speedy online publishing in public health.

One: Ask for evidence

Evolving from successful media-focused initiatives such as the Science Media Centre in the UK, organisations are now giving the public access to the experts online. The Ask for Evidence campaign is a stand out example and provides members of the public a way of accessing subject matter experts when they have seen a claim they would like to fact check.

Two: Increasing digital skills

A more fundamental approach to enabling people to critique online information is to help them gain the knowledge and skills needed to use the internet. This manifests itself in initiatives such as the European Commission’s Grand Coalition for Digital Jobs and accreditation of health information online via NHS England’s The Information Standard. This approach recognises that myth and misinformation will stop online. Instead, they help build the ability of the population to critically appraise digital information, while signposting to accredited and trustworthy sources of information; clearing a path through the mass of online sources to evidence-based information.

Three: Speedy online publishing in public health

While asking for evidence and increasing digital skills have been core responses to the challenge of dealing with false information online, these do not necessarily provide a response at the speed questions are asked and answered online. To increase the pace of response, public health authorities must build teams who have the right skills to create, publish and defend information online. The Behind the Headlines service commissioned by NHS Choices is one example of how public health authorities can swiftly publish a balanced perspective about topical health and medical claims. Online Q&A’s are a direct and rapid way of helping the public get their questions answered by the experts. For example, Nigerian based digital service Ebola Alert hosted a weekly #EbolaChat during the 2014-2015 outbreak, and the US Centre for Disease Control (CDC) ran an Ebola Q&A on Twitter. These dynamic sessions are directed by the public’s questions and not an organisation’s priorities, and are an excellent way for public health authorities to build their online reputation and reach by using two-way communication.

Top five tips for public health organisations

  1. Provide evidence-based information via a central and well marketed online resource
  2. Build public health teams that have a mix of health expertise and online communication expertise
  3. Give the public access to the experts via regular and topical Q&A’s
  4. Enable your public health teams to quickly respond to topical stories by removing any unnecessary sign-off bureaucracy
  5. Where practical, directly respond to the most popular sources of misinformation via comments and counter-blogs.


As these examples show, public health organisations across the world are becoming more agile and adaptable when working online. Social media and online “chatter” are now considered serious tools for public health professionals seeking to better engage and inform the public before, during and after emergencies. The challenge, however, remains – can large, hierarchical public health organisations consistently flex their traditionally structured work culture to meet the ebb and flow of today’s online communications?


Alexander Talbott


MMLAP and other EU Projects

Health system analysis to support capacity development in response to the threat of pandemic influenza in Asia
Making society an active participant in water adaptation to global change
Public Participation in Developing a Common Framework for Assessment and Management of Sustainable Innovation
Engaging all of Europe in shaping a desirable and sustainable future
Expect the unexpected and know how to respond
Driving innovation in crisis management for European resilience
Effective communication in outbreak management: development of an evidence-based tool for Europe
Solutions to improve CBRNe resilience
Network for Communicable Disease Control in Southern Europe and Mediterranean Countries
Developing the framework for an epidemic forecast infrastructure
Strengthening of the national surveillance system for communicable diseases
Surveillance of vaccine preventable hepatitis
European monitoring of excess mortality for public health action
European network for highly infectious disease
Dedicated surveillance network for surveillance and control of vaccine preventable diseases in the EU
Modelling the spread of pandemic influenza and strategies for its containment and mitigation
Cost-effectiveness assessment of european influenza human pandemic alert and response strategies
Bridging the gap between science, stakeholders and policy makers
Promotion of immunization for health professionals in Europe
Towards inclusive research programming for sustainable food innovations
Addressing chronic diseases and healthy ageing across the life cycle
Medical ecosystem – personalized event-based surveillance
Studying the many and varied economic, social, legal and ethical aspects of the recent developments on the Internet, and their consequences for the individual and society at large
Get involved in the responsible marine research and innovation
Knowledge-based policy-making on issues involving science, technology and innovation, mainly based upon the practices in Parliamentary Technology Assessment
Assessment of the current pandemic preparedness and response tools, systems and practice at national, EU and global level in priority areas
Analysis of innovative public engagement tools and instruments for dynamic governance in the field of Science in Society
Public Engagement with Research And Research Engagement with Society
Computing Veracity – the Fourth Challenge of Big Data
Providing infrastructure, co-ordination and integration of existing clinical research networks on epidemics and pandemics
Promote vaccinations among migrant population in Europe
Creating mechanisms for effectively tackling the scientific and technology related challenges faced by society
Improve the quality of indoor air, keeping it free from radon
Improving respect of ethics principles and laws in research and innovation, in line with the evolution of technologies and societal concerns
Investigating how cities in the West securitise against global pandemics
Creating a structured dialogue and mutual learning with citizens and urban actors by setting up National Networks in 10 countries across Europe
Identifying how children can be change agents in the Science and Society relationship
Establishing an open dialogue between stakeholders concerning synthetic biology’s potential benefits and risks
Transparent communication in Epidemics: Learning Lessons from experience, delivering effective Messages, providing Evidence