When it comes to getting health information online consumers have to be careful. Inaccurate information isn’t just wrong. It can be downright dangerous — even deadly. Yet it seems that every John and Jane Doe is willing to spout their advice online on blogs, in forums, and on other sites about everything from weight loss products to natural cures. Sometimes they’re compensated to write glowy reviews of health products they don’t actually believe in, sometimes the information that’s true for one person could have serious risks for others, and sometimes they’re just wrong.
Still, the Web should make it easier to find health-related information, right? And fortunately there is a lot of reputable health information available online. Here are ten tips that can help you separate the credible sources of health information from the less-than-reputable.
10 Tips to Help You Identify Reputable Sources of Health Information on the Web
- Look for government health agencies. A .gov extension on the website address means it’s a government site in the U.S. Different countries might use slightly different extensions or the same tied to their country-specific extension.
- Look for well-known health organizations (like the American Heart Association) that specialize in certain health areas. They usually use a .org extension in their site address. But note that a .org extension alone doesn’t make a site reputable.
- Look for health information from educational institutions such as well-respected medical schools. In this case a .edu extension in the site name can help you sort the real institutions from sites simply trying to appear like one.
See what products / services the sites are selling or promoting. Is there a blatant conflict of interest? Having advertising doesn’t always mean a site’s information is untrustworthy. But if the whole site seems to be set up around promoting a specific product, that’s a big red flag.
- Always look for author credentials for health articles online. Was the article written by a doctor? Just a health writer? Someone else? How credible is the actual author?
- Look for credentials of interview sources if the author isn’t a medical professional. There’s nothing wrong with getting information from health writers. They’re specialists in their own right. But if that’s the case, you need to look at their sources. They should be including interviews from medical professionals if they don’t have those credentials themselves.
- How old is the information? You should always look for the most up-to-date health information as new findings come out and recommendations are changed all the time.
- Read the “About” page for background on the site. Who runs or funds it? Is it an unbiased source? Are there ulterior motives you should know about such as studies funded by drug manufacturers? (Note that these studies aren’t necessarily untrustworthy. These companies are sometimes the only ones that can afford to do the research, and it’s often better to have the research done by them than not at all. That said, you should be aware of it when you decide how trustworthy that information is to you, since there still is bias in the information if they sell pharmaceuticals and supplements.)
- Look for contact information. If you can’t find out where a site owner is located, they’re less credible than a respected organization with an address, phone number, email address, etc. all available. Location information is important, especially with health information where there are different rules regarding pharmaceuticals and medical treatments depending on where you (and the information provider) are.
Make sure statistics and claims actually cite sources like studies conducted by reputable institutions. If someone just throws statistics at you with no source, be skeptical. It might be a made up number, or a misunderstanding of the facts. No one should cite statistics, medical ones or not, without source citation. It’s plagiarism at best and dangerous misinformation at worst.
No matter how much you trust a website’s health information, it’s always a good idea to check multiple sources for confirmation. And please, contact your doctor or other healthcare professional if you have questions about your specific condition or circumstances. Online health information is not a substitute for medical care.