Online Health Information - Should You Trust It?

You or a loved one is newly diagnosed with a serious health condition. Or maybe your doctor has prescribed a new medication and you're concerned about side effects. Or you need surgery and want to know what to expect. Where do you turn? According to the Pew Research Center, if you're like 80% of the Internet users out there, you've looked for health-related information online. But type "cancer" into a search engine and you'll get over 306,000,000 (yes, million!) results. Where do you begin? And can you trust what you find? Here are some guidelines to help you.
Things to Look for in a Legitimate Health Site

  • First of all, what does the URL or website address end in? If it's (government site),.org (organization's site), (educational site), the information there is most likely to be trustworthy. If it's, you'll have to look closer. The site may be legitimate, but it may also be trying to sell you something, or contain inaccurate information.
  • Is there an author or organization associated with the website? If an author is listed, what are his or her credentials?
  • Is there "contact" information available -- an address, phone number or email? Is there an "about us page?
  • When was the site last updated? Is the information current? (You may find this information near the bottom of the page).
  • Look to see if there is an HONcode or similar indication of accreditation. These sites must go through an approval process and follow certain ethical guidelines.
Be Very Cautious...

  • Be aware that the highlighted links that appear at the top of the page or over at the right after you've typed in a search term are "sponsored" or paid ads. They may be trying to sell you something.
  • Are there a lot of misspellings or poor grammar on the website? Look elsewhere.
  • Does the site promise a miraculous or quick "cure"? Is it the only site making these claims? Does it put down traditional medicine? If the claims made seem too good to be true -- they probably are.
  • Are there a lot of advertisements on the page? Or is it, in fact, a blatant sales page itself? That alone may not disqualify it. But proceed cautiously nevertheless; and verify what you read there.
  • Do they post a privacy policy? You may have to look around for this. But if you're asked to provide an email address, fill in a registration form, or take a survey, make sure they have one. If they state that they share information with companies that may send you "useful" information or products, then be aware that your personal information is not private.
  • And finally, don't use the information you find on the Internet to diagnose or treat a disease or condition! Internet information is not a substitute for your doctor's care, but should be used simply to educate yourself and supplement information provided by your doctor.
So Where Should You Begin?
The National Institute of Health, along with the National Library of Medicine (which is the world's largest medical library) have produced a website designed specifically for patients and their families. You'll find information on over 800 diseases and conditions, clinical trials, drugs and supplements, interactive tutorials, and "cool tools" like health calculators. There are also directories to help you find doctors, dentists, and other health care providers, hospitals, organizations, support groups and much, much more. You'll find easy-to-understand information that's current and totally reliable. So the next time you have a health-related question, you might want to consider visiting MedlinePlus first. You may not have to look anywhere else!