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MedlinePlus Advantage

Finding Good Health Information on the Internet

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Millions of consumers get health information from magazines, TV, or the Internet. Some 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 medineplus.gov.

Follow these 8 steps:

1. Consider the source.

—Use recognized, responsible authorities.

  • Is it a branch of the federal government, a non-profit institution, professional organization, health system, commercial organization, or an individual?
  • There is a big difference between a site that says, "I developed this site after my heart attack" and one stating, "This page on heart attack was developed by health professionals at the American Heart Association."
  • Web sites should display contact information for the organization or Web master. If there is no contact information, be careful.

2. Focus on Quality

—All Web sites are not created equal.

  • Does the site have an editorial board? Is the information reviewed before it is posted?
  • This information is often on the "about us" page, or under the organization's mission statement, or in the annual report.
  • Are the board members experts in the subject of the site? A site on osteoporosis whose medical advisory board is composed of attorneys and accountants is not medically authoritative.
  • Look for a description of the process of selecting or approving information on the site. It is usually in the "about us" section and may be called "editorial policy" or "selection policy" or "review policy."
  • Sometimes the site will have information "about our writers" or "about our authors" instead of an editorial policy. Review this section to find out who has written the information.

3. Be a cyber-skeptic

—If it sounds too good to be true.

  • 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.)
  • Consumer health Web sites should use simple language.
  • Get a second opinion! Check more than one site.

4. Look for the evidence

—Rely on medical research, not opinion.

  • Look for the author of the information, either an individual or an organization, such as "By Jane Smith, RN," or "Copyright 2013, American Cancer Society."
  • Case histories or testimonials should have the organization or individual's contact information such as an email address or telephone number. Beware of anonymous or hard-to-track testimonials, such as "Jane from California."

5. Check for timeliness

—Is the information current?

  • Look for dates on documents. Those on coping with loss of a loved one need not be current, but ones detailing the latest treatment for AIDS should be.
  • 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?

  • Is the site supported by public funds or through commercial advertising?
  • Advertisements should clearly state "Advertisement" or "From our Sponsor."
  • For example, if a page about treatment of depression recommends a drug by name, is the information from the drug's manufacturer? If so, you should consult other sources to see what they say about the same drug.

7. Protect your privacy

—Health information should be confidential.

  • Does the site have a privacy policy describing what information they collect?
  • 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.
  • If registration is required, notice what questions you must answer before you can view content. If it is personal—name, address, date of birth, gender, mother's maiden name, credit card number—read the privacy policy to see what they can do with your information.

8. Consult with your health professional

—Patient/provider partnerships lead to the best medical decisions

  • Write down any important questions you want to ask before you go to your next appointment, so you will remember to ask them.
  • For each appointment, take a written list of the medications you are currently taking—prescription and over-the-counter.
  • If you are concerned about remembering what your healthcare provider tells you, take along a family member or close friend to also hear what you are told.
Read More "The Medline Plus Advantage" Articles

Finding Good Health Information on the Internet / The MedlinePlus Advantage

Winter 2015 Issue: Volume 9 Number 4 Page 14-15