Your best source for medical information is always your doctor but, when you have a simple question or you feel frustrated or overwhelmed with a medical condition, you might turn to the internet for answers. Unfortunately, not all the medical information available online can be trusted and a web site’s reliability is not always clear. Therefore, it’s up to you to weigh the risks of following medical advice from a web site. Here are ways to help you evaluate the health information that the ‘Net has to offer.
Consider the Source
Make sure that you understand who wrote the information that you are reading. Ask yourself whether the author’s take on things might be biased in any way. Reputable sites should provide information on the author or reviewer such as:
- Do they have the appropriate background to provide this information?
- Are they able to provide objective information or could they be motivated by financial or professional obligations or gains?
- Could there be personal experiences that may be motivated by biases or just unique perspective?
Verify Site Ownership
Well-established and reputable sources of health information include Federal agencies, such as the FDA and USDA. You can reach Federal websites by visiting www.usa.gov. Professional organizations such as the American Academy of Family Physicians, and non-profit organizations, such as the American Heart Association and the American Red Cross, are also good sources of information. You can also trust well-known medical schools, such as Johns Hopkins, Mayo Clinic, or Boston Children’s Hospital.
Websites cost money to host. Therefore, it’s important to understand how the site is funded. The funding may influence the advice that is offered. The website address may give some information. For example, an address that ends in:
- .gov identifies it as a US government agency
- .org usually signifies a non-profit organization
- .edu identifies an educational institution
- .com extension is usually, but not always, an indicator of a commercial or profit website
Each website should also have information about its origins and business relations to help identify any conflicts of interest. Excess advertising and requests for personal information may be signs of conflicts of interest.
Web sites should also provide easy and recognizable access to the author or site for feedback as it shows a willingness to be responsible for the content.
Quality of Data
There are many people with an impassioned view on health and medical treatment. Unfortunately, not all are based on facts. Look for references to research or scientific support of the statements. If the article is based on a specific study look for details on that study. Factors that make studies more reliable include:
- Large number of participants—the more participants involved in the study the more reliable the outcomes are.
- Publication in a peer-reviewed journal—this means the study was reviewed by other medical and research professionals and the study protocol met certain quality standards.
- Study was conducted by independent party that does not have a financial interest in the outcome of the study.
Some online information is created by non-medical people who struggle with similar health complaints. Details about coping with conditions and navigating the health system can be very helpful but beware of medical advice. We all have our unique health histories, medical experiences, and treatment goals. It is important to talk about your questions or treatment changes with your doctor.
Check the Date
We learn new things about medicine every day. New studies come to different conclusions and guidelines can be changed. As a result, you’ll want to ensure that the content you trust online is recent. Often, the bottom of the page will have a date. If the content hasn’t been reviewed by experts in the field and updated in 3 years, then look for other sources.
You don’t have to completely discard old information, though. Sometimes it can provide you with a much-needed historical background as to how a disease or condition used to be managed.
Talk To Your Doctor
It’s important to use common sense as you surf the Internet for health information. It can be easy to become confused by everything out there. Online health information should never be a substitute for a conversation that you should be having with your doctor. The information is merely a tool to have a more informed and productive conversation. Always talk to your doctor before you act on any information that you find online or if you feel frustrated with your current care.
Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians
National Institute on Aging
Canadian Institute for Health Information
Evaluating health information. UCSF Medical Center website. Available at: http://www.ucsfhealth.org/education/evaluating_health_information. Accessed November 2, 2015.
Finding reliable health information online. Johns Hopkins Medicine website. Available at: http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/johns_hopkins_bayview/patient_visitor_amenities/community_health_library/finding_reliable_health_information_online.html. Accessed November 2, 2015.
Health information on the web: finding reliable information. Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians website. Available at: http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/healthcare-management/self-care/health-information-on-the-web-finding-reliable-information.html. Updated May 2014. Accessed November 2, 2015.
Online health information: can you trust it? National Institute on Aging website. Available at: https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/publication/online-health-information. Updated October 9, 2015. Accessed November 2, 2015.
Top 100 list: health websites you can trust. Consumer and Patient Health Information Section website. Available at: http://caphis.mlanet.org/consumer. Updated September 2015. Accessed January 19, 2016.
Last reviewed February 2016 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Michael Woods, MD, FAAP Last Updated: 03/04/2016