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NIH MedlinePlus the Magazine, Trusted Health Information from the National Institutes of Health

Online Health Information

Finding Good Health Information on the Internet

Stephanie Dennis leads the MedlinePlus initiative and team for the National Library of Medicine.

Some online health information is reliable and up to date, some not. How can you tell the good from the bad?

If you use the web, look for an “about us” page. Check to see who runs the site. Focus on quality. Be skeptical. Things that sound too good to be true often are. You want current, unbiased information based on research. Quite often, the best information is found at Opens new window, the National Institute of Health’s website for patients and their families.

Follow these 7 steps:

1. Consider the source

—Use recognized, responsible authorities.

“You wouldn’t drink from an unmarked bottle, right? Instead you’d look for clues about what’s inside,” says Stephanie Dennis, head of the MedlinePlus team. “The same is true for health information on the web.”

Ask some key questions:

  • Who is providing the content?
  • What do they know about the topic?
  • Why are they providing this information?
  • Where does it come from?
  • Is it up-to-date?
  • How is the site funded?
  • Is there advertising on the site, and, if so, is it clearly labeled?

Make sure the information is from reliable medical experts.

2. Focus on quality.

—All websites are not created equal.

Does the site have an editorial board? Is information reviewed before it is posted?

“This information is often on the ‘about us’ page,” says Dennis.

  • Are the board members experts in the subject of the site? A site on osteoporosis with a medical advisory board composed of attorneys and accountants is not medically authoritative.
  • Look for a description of the process for selecting or approving information on the site. It is usually in the “about us” section and may be called “editorial policy,” “selection policy,” or “review policy.”

3. Be a cyber-skeptic.

—If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

“We’re often looking for health information when we’re vulnerable and seeking answers for comfort,” says Dennis. “Once you understand why a site was created, you can more easily pick up on any bias.”

  • Beware of remedies that claim to cure a variety of illnesses, are “breakthroughs,” or rely on “secret ingredients.”
  • Use caution if the site uses a sensational writing style (lots of exclamation points, for example).

4. Look for the evidence.

—Rely on medical research, not opinion.

“Ask yourself if you’re being persuaded or manipulated,” suggests Dennis. ”A site supported by public funds is less likely to support a particular perspective and is obliged to provide sound, unbiased information based on research.”

  • Look for the author of the information, either an individual or an organization, such as “By Jane Smith, RN,” or “Copyright 2016, American Cancer Society.”

5. Look for timeliness.

—Is the information current?

“Look for dates on the research,” says Dennis. “You want to be sure you are seeing current information on things like treatment.”

  • Click on a few links on the site. If a number are broken, the site may not be kept up-to-date.

6. Beware of bias.

—Who pays for the site? What is the purpose?

“What if a page about a skin condition is paid for by a company making medicine that treats this condition?” asks Dennis. “Ask yourself if it’s possible that the website’s purpose is to encourage use of a sponsored product instead of using other options.”

  • For example, if a page about treatment of depression recommends a drug by name, is the information from the drug’s manufacturer?

7. Protect your privacy.

—Health information should be confidential.

Dennis suggests you should be aware of what information you share about yourself. “If a site requires personal information, consider how it may be used. Read the privacy policy, and beware of sites without one.”

  • There should be a link saying “Privacy” or “Privacy Policy.” Read the policy to verify your privacy is protected. For example, if it says “we share information with companies that can provide you with useful products,” then your information isn’t private.

The MedlinePlus Advantage

MedlinePlus is the National Institutes of Health’s website for patients and their families and friends. Produced by the National Library of Medicine, it brings you information about diseases, conditions, and wellness issues in language you can understand. MedlinePlus offers reliable, up-to-date health information, anytime, anywhere—for free.

“We provide Opens new window, and our Spanish sister site MedlinePlus en Español Opens new window, so that you can quickly find reliable health information,” says Stephanie Dennis, head of the team. “It’s your perfect starting point for information on diseases, conditions, medications, and wellness issues. Our site provides access to information produced by the National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health, such as searches of PubMed and MEDLINE, our database that indexes medical research literature, and Opens new window, a database of research studies conducted around the world.”

You can use Opens new window to learn about the latest treatments, look up information on a drug or supplement, find out the meanings of words, and view medical videos or illustrations.

“We also have a database of full-text drug and supplement information, an encyclopedia, a medical dictionary, and health news,” says Dennis. Plus, you can click through to thousands of pages provided by the NIH Institutes, federal government sites, and other trusted providers of information. We review the content on MedlinePlus on a daily basis, and you can trust that it is up-to-date and reliable.”

Visit Opens new window for comprehensive health information from the world’s largest medical library, NIH’s National Library of Medicine.

Fall 2016 Issue: Volume 11 Number 3 Page 24-27