On a typical day, millions of people type “back pain,” “migraine,” or some other troubling symptom into an Internet search engine. Almost 60% of Americans searched for health information online last year. Are you one of them? Do you sometimes feel overwhelmed at the amount of information that is on the Web? In this age of instant communication, we are bombarded with “facts” (which may or may not be accurate), as well as opinions and suggestions (which may or may not be helpful), not just from the Web, but also from television, magazines, and newspapers. We also often hear well-intentioned—but often misinformed—advice from friends, family, and co-workers.
How should you make sense of it all? How can you sort out fiction from fact, and glean what is really relevant to your condition? We can’t help you with Aunt Edna’s advice, and mass media presents a glut of information through an overwhelming number of avenues. We can, however, help you become a savvy consumer of Internet health resources.
Finding the Most Reliable Health Web Sites
After you type in your question or topic, you will see a list of relevant Internet sites. Instead of clicking on the first one or two, begin by doing some screening. You can do this by looking first at the URL (Web address). Some of the most reliable sites end with “.gov” (for government agencies), and “.edu” (for academic medical centers — the best of which are associated with major medical schools like Harvard or Stanford). You can also look for national organizations that pertain to the condition you are interested in, and these will end with “.org.” Most—but not all—of these (such as the American Heart Association) are non-profit organizations.
In addition to these three types of web domains, there is certainly reliable information available on sites with other types of URLs. For any of these, you will need to visit the site itself to validate it. Check for the following:
- Does the site clearly offer information for health consumers (as opposed to professionals)?
- Can you easily navigate the site to find what you want?
- Is it written in a patient-centric, understandable way?
- Is the organization reputable? Are there other organizations that you may be confusing this for? (For example, www.lymediseaseassociation.org vs. www.aldf.com vs. www.lymedisease.org vs. www.Lyme.org.)
- Is the site trying to sell you a product to improve your health? If so, time to move on! Use extreme scrutiny with 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, it is time to look more closely at the information you are reading:
- Is it current? Always check the date that the information was posted (this usually appears at the bottom of the page.) If there is no date, beware! This might indicate disproved or outdated information.
- Is the information factual (rather than subjective), and backed up with links or footnotes to primary sources, such as research studies?
- Be cautious of “expert” opinions, as some of them are self-proclaimed experts. Generally, government or academic (.gov or .edu) web sites will have the most reputable perspectives, even if not advertised as such.
Even the most beautiful, perfectly organized, well-written Web site may contain incorrect—or even harmful—information. The best way to protect yourself is to speak with your Harvard Vanguard healthcare provider. 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 please communicate with us!
Be aware also that a little information can sometimes be more dangerous than none at all. Surfing the web for a health problem you are having can sometimes lead to a “do-it-yourself diagnosis.” We welcome your questions, and appreciate your investment in your own care. However, please bear in mind that your health care providers trained for many years to diagnose illness properly. Your research, coupled with their expertise, should help with understanding your health problems, 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 Web sites to start you off:
- The Mayo Clinic, despite its “dot-com” domain, has a rich and reputable database of health information in an easy-to-use format.
- A fantastic jumping-off point not just for infectious diseases such as flu and Lyme disease, the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention also provides unbiased information regarding cancer and heart disease.
- The US Preventive Services Task Force or USPSTF is the foremost independent panel of experts weighing in on disease prevention and evidence-based medicine. Locally, the Massachusetts Health Quality Partnership offers similar guidelines.
- Under President Obama, there have been major revisions to the Health and Human Services website.
- The Medical Library Association‘s User’s Guide to Finding and Evaluating Health Information on the Web
- MEDLINEplus is a consumer-oriented Web site established by the National Library of Medicine, the world’s largest biomedical library and creator of the MEDLINE database.
- Major organizations such as the American Heart Association, American Diabetes Association, and the American Cancer Society have sites with in-depth information for patients and family members.
- For evidence-based information about alternative and complementary therapies, visit the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine which is part of the National Institutes of Health.