Paging Dr. Google. You know you’ve done it. You have a symptom, you hit the web, and you find yourself faced with a myriad of possible diagnoses and possible solutions. Suddenly that headache is a potential brain tumor, multiple sclerosis, or the result of too many pesticides in your food. The internet is an amazing tool, but it is also daunting and even dangerous — particularly when it becomes a primary source of medical and health information.
It is estimated that 75-80% of Americans use the Internet to obtain health information. It has been shown that of those who use the web to visit online health sites, more than 50% of believe that most health information found online is credible. But, of course, anyone who has looked at the web knows, there is a lot of misinformation out there. So, how can you be sure the information you find on health-related websites is accurate? Here are five key tips:
1. Look for “.gov” or websites run by government agencies
Websites run by the federal government are some of the most reliable because the information is written and reviewed by professionals and is generally not sponsored by any for-profit companies, such as pharmaceutical companies. The website “www.healthfinder.gov” is particularly helpful — it is a search engine that links to over 1500 reliable health websites.
2. Look for “.edu” or affiliation with a university
Like government run websites, most institutions of higher learning have accurate information that is not sponsored by for-profit companies. This means that the information you are reading is less likely to be biased or intended to sell something.
3. Avoid sites that want to sell you something
Watch out for websites that offer a quick solution in the form of a product or pill. Many health-related websites have articles about a particular ailment with links to a vitamin, procedure, or pill built into the article. The authors clearly have an incentive to sell their products and the advice may be less than trustworthy.
4. Be careful of agendas
Its important to consider whether a particular organization has an agenda that is framing the way certain health issues are discussed. For instance, many vaccine-related websites are run by groups or individuals that opposed vaccination. The information on these sites is usually very biased, presenting only one side of the story (vaccines are bad) and failing to give any information that is pro-vaccine. If the information seems biased, it probably is, and you should proceed with caution.
5. Ask your doctor
Having a conversation with your doctor may be the best way to determine which sites you can trust. Ask your doctor what websites she uses, which ones to avoid, and how to determine the reliability of a website.
Follow these tips, and you will be savvy and confident in using health-related websites. For more information, check out: http://www.jointcommission.org/assets/1/18/patient_101.pdf