How to find reliable health information online
It’s after midnight and your child has an odd rash and fever. Your doctor just told you that you may have an autoimmune disorder. You’re looking for options to help your parent facing cognitive issues. When you have health questions, you and millions of others turn to the Internet for answers. And while everyone consults Dr. Google now and then (a practice that should never be a substitute for talking with your doctor), how can you tell if the health information you find online is accurate and supported by scientific evidence?
One study found that health information online is frequently flawed, wrong, or biased. Getting inaccurate, misleading, or biased information can not only cause undue worry, it can also delay a visit to the doctor, slowing down the process of getting an accurate diagnosis, or, in some cases, even harm your health. That’s why it’s important to learn how to differentiate between reliable, evidence-based health information online and information that’s inaccurate or simply designed to sell you something.
What to look for when seeking health information online
To help determine whether a website provides reliable, unbiased health information, ask these questions:
- Who runs the site? Look for an “About Us” or “About Our Organization” section on the site and find out who runs it, why they created the site (often described as the organization’s mission or goals), and who is paying for or sponsoring the site. For example, if the site is sponsored or run by a pharmaceutical company, the information may be focused on getting you to use their medication. Sites with a domain of .com are usually run by companies, so check the information for bias or conflict of interest. If the site has ads or sponsored content, is it clearly labeled as such?
- Is the information accurate and up to date? Does the website cite its sources and include current scientific literature? What are the medical credentials of the people who have prepared the information? Does the material or website include a date when the information was last updated? Does it say if the information provided has been reviewed by experts and if so who those experts are and what their medical credentials are?
- Can you contact the site’s owners with questions or concerns? Be wary of any site where you cannot contact the person or organization that runs the site. There should be a contact us section on the site that includes how you can contact the site owner. Some sites only have an email address for contact, but many also include a physical address and/or phone number.
Websites with the domains .org, .edu, and .gov are often a good place to start your search for health information, although you should still ask yourself the questions above to vet the reliability of the information. Here are some sites you may want to visit next time you’re looking for health information:
- Medline Plus
- National Library of Medicine
- National Institutes of Health Information page
- Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality
- CDC Health Topics
- National Cancer Institute
- Kids Health
- Sites for major academic medical centers