Caught in the net? Online health information you can trust

On a typical day, millions of people type “back pain” or “migraine” into an Internet search engine. A 2011 Harris Poll found that three quarters (74%) of all adults have gone online at some time to look for health information, and that 60% have done so in the previous week. Are you one of them? Do you sometimes feel overwhelmed at the amount of information on the Internet? In this age of instant communication, we are bombarded with “facts” (which may or may not be accurate), and suggestions (which may or may not be helpful), not just from the Internet, but also from television, magazines, and newspapers. We also often hear well-meaning — but often misinformed — advice from friends and family.

How to make sense of it all? How to sort out fiction from fact and find what is really relevant to your condition? We can’t help with Aunt Sally’s advice, or the information from TV, magazines and newspapers, but we can help you become an Internet-savvy health consumer.

Finding the most reliable health websites

After you type in your question or topic, you will see a list of relevant Internet sites. Instead of just clicking, begin by doing some screening. First, look at the URL, the web address after the name of the website. The most reliable sites end with “.gov” (for government agencies), and “.edu” (for academic medical centers). You can also look for national organizations that provide information on the condition you are interested in, which will end with “.org.” Just make sure these are nonprofit organizations, such as The American Cancer Society, (www.cancer.org).

In addition to these three types of web addresses, there is reliable information on sites with other types of URLs (such as the one you are currently reading). For these, you will need to visit the site itself as part of your preliminary screening process. Check for the following:

  • Does the site clearly direct you to information for health consumers, as opposed to professionals?
  • Can you easily move around the site to find what you want?
  • Is the content written in an understandable way?
  • Is the organization reputable? You can often determine this by doing a search on the organization itself to see if there are complaints or lawsuits.
  • Is the site trying to sell you a product to improve your health? If so, warning bells should go off, and it is time to move on! View with suspicion any site that is trying to sell you something, whether it is a medicine, a food or a health-related device. At a minimum, ask your health care provider for advice.

Evaluating web-based information

Once you are satisfied with the site itself, look more closely at the information you are reading

  • Is it current? Always check on the date that the information was posted. This usually appears at the bottom of each page. If there is no date, beware! This might indicate that there is disproved or outdated information, or a sloppy, untrustworthy Web site.
  • Is the information factual (rather than opinion or ranting) and backed up with references to primary sources, such as research studies?
  • Are experts cited? Even if there are no research studies to back up the advice, there should be some other reliable source, such as a reputable expert who is associated with a major academic medical center, or a reliable research organization.

Protecting yourself

Even if a website is beautiful, well organized and easy-to-understand, the information and advice may simply be wrong for you — either useless or, in the worst case, actually harmful. The best way to protect yourself is to ask a health care provider you trust. It is important that your provider be aware of everything you are doing for your health. An herb that you found online, for example, may have dangerous interactions with a prescription medicine you are taking. So communicate!

Be aware also, that some, but too little information, can sometimes be more dangerous than no information at all. Surfing the web for a health problem you are having can lead to a “do-it-yourself diagnosis.” Bear in mind that we hire our doctors or other health care providers for their expertise. They trained for years to diagnose illness properly, and they should be your first stop on the way to understanding your health problem and finding the best treatment.

Getting started on the web

If you do decide to look on the Web for health information, here are some reputable websites to start you off:

  • The Medical Library Association’s User’s Guide to Finding and Evaluating Health Information on the Web – http://www.mlanet.org  (search on “user’s guide”)
  • MEDLINEplus is a consumer-oriented Web site established by the National Library of Medicine. It includes an online illustrated medical encyclopedia and dictionary. http://medlineplus.gov/
  • For evidence-based information about complementary and alternative therapies, visit the Web site of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health, which itself has an excellent consumer health information Web site.  http://nccam.nih.gov

References

Medical Library Association. (2008). A user’s guide to finding and evaluating health information on the web. Retrieved January 28, 2008, from http://www.mlanet.org

National Center for Alternative and Complementary Medicine. (2006). 10 things to know about evaluating medical resources on the web. Retrieved January 20, 2008 from http://nccam.nih.gov