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Finding and Evaluating Health Information on the Internet

By: Mary Beth Klofas, MLS


Most of us would never buy food without checking the expiration date and/or reading the label. Failing to do so might endanger our health. We put ourselves at similar risk if we neglect to check for signs of quality when searching for health information on the Internet.

In spite of the negative consequences though, many of us are doing just that. Recent findings from the The Pew Internet & American Life Project indicate that 80 percent of American Internet users, or approximately 113 million adults, have searched online for information on a least one of a wide variety of health topics. Most users consult a general search engine, such as Google or Yahoo, when searching for medical or health information online. Three-quarters of those utilizing the Internet as a source for health information say they check the source and date "only sometimes," "hardly ever," or "never." Does this profile describe you?

If you answered "yes" to this question, you need to discover how to evaluate health information on the Internet and become informed about the best and most reputable consumer health sites.

Evaluating Health Information

The Medical Library Association recommends that consumers ask themselves the following questions when searching for reliable health care information on the Internet:

  • Who sponsors the web site?

    Be sure their qualifications are clearly identified. Trustworthy sources include government agencies, medical associations, hospitals, medical centers, and medical schools. The web address can help you determine where the information is coming from.

    • A government agency has .gov in the address.
    • An education institution is identified with .edu in the address.
    • A professional society or organization is often indicated with .org in the address. Please note, however, that there are no formal restrictions in the use of the .org domain name.
    • The site should fully disclose the sponsor of the site, including the identities of commercial and noncommercial organizations that have contributed funding, services, or material to the site. Keep in mind that sites produced by drug companies and manufacturers of medical supplies and devices are selling their products and often do not contain comparative information.

    Look for an "About Us" page and a way to contact the organization or webmaster.
  • Is the site current?

    Health information becomes outdated quickly – check when it was last updated. If there are a lot of broken links, the site may not be kept up-to-date.
  • Does the site contain facts or opinions?

    Do opinions represent those of qualified professionals and are their credentials included? Look for information based on verifiable research.
  • Who is the audience?

    The site should clearly indicate whether the information is intended for consumers or health professionals.
  • Does the site have a privacy policy?

    There should be a clear statement of the site's privacy policy. Make sure your privacy is really being protected.

Portals and Other Reputable Health Information Websites

Consumers who use Google and Yahoo for information find them to be wonderful tools, but the number of search results can be overwhelming and there is no filtering for quality information. To avoid that frustration, there are many trustworthy sites where you can begin your search and find all types of health information – from information on diseases and drugs - to nutrition and laboratory tests. Following is a selected list:

1) Clic-on-Health - a portal developed by Rochester area librarians that offers "one-stop-shopping" for health information. It has links to the most respected and high-quality consumer health websites. Clic-on-Health is unique because it also offers information about local support groups and agencies. It is a great place to begin your search and was named 2004 "Best of the Web" by the Rochester Business Journal.

2) MedlinePlus – information from government agencies and other health related institutions and organized by the National Library of Medicine. MedlinePlus has extensive information about diseases, drugs, an illustrated medical encyclopedia, interactive patient tutorials, and latest health news. MedlinePlus also has information about complementary and alternative therapies, herbs, and supplements. Information is available in Spanish and over 40 other languages.

3) Lab Tests Online – helps consumers understand the many lab tests that are part of routine care as well as diagnosis and treatment of a broad range of conditions and diseases.

4) National Cancer Institute - assists cancer patients to better understand their health, diagnosed conditions, and the current range of approaches related to cancer treatment, prevention, screening, and supportive care. Information is also available in Spanish.

5) KidsHealth - health, behavior, and development information from before birth through the teen years. Sections for parents, kids, and teens.

6) NIH Senior Health – provides aging-related health information. Site allows increases in contrast as well as size of type for easier viewing.

7) Noah: Women's Health – topics related to women's health in English and Spanish.

Impact

The availability of health information on the Internet makes a difference in consumers' lives. Following are some facts from the Pew Internet & American Life report:

58% say the information they found in their last search affected a decision about how to treat an illness or condition.

55% say the information changed their overall approach to maintaining their health or the health of someone they take care of.

54% say the information led them to ask a doctor new questions or to get a second opinion from another doctor.

These statistics indicate the value of health information on the Internet to consumers and reinforce the need to make informed decisions about what health and medical websites to use.

Patient – Provider Collaboration

Finding health information on the Internet is not an end in itself, rather, it is a tool. Utilize the information as a starting point and discuss it with your provider. Improving and maintaining your health requires communication between patients and providers and talking about the information that you find is a way to start the dialogue.

Ask a Medical Librarian

If you need assistance finding health information, e-mail your question to Ask a Medical Librarian at askamedicallibrarian@rrlc.org. This is a service provided through Clic-on-Health; your question is directed to librarians at the Edward G. Miner Library, University of Rochester Medical Center or the Stabbins Wellness Information Center at Rochester General Hospital. The librarians will follow-up and send you the information you need. All information is kept confidential.

 


Fox, S. (2006). Online health search 2006. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/~/media//Files/Reports/2006/PIP_Online_Health_2006.pdf.pdf

Medical Library Association. (n.d.). A user's guide to finding and evaluation health information on the web. Retrieved from http://www.mlanet.org/resources/userguide.html


About the Author 

Mary Beth Klofas, MLS Mary Beth Klofas, MLS

Mary Beth Klofas, MLS is the Nursing and Patient Outreach Coordinator and the Head of Access Services in the Edward G. Miner Library at the University of Rochester Medical Center. She is also a member of the Rochester Regional Library Council Clic-on-Health Steering Committee.

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The Rochester Healthnote Library consists of locally-authored articles either commissioned by Rochester Health or republished with the author's permission. The information provided in the Rochester Healthnote Library is for general informational purposes only and is not meant to be a substitute for professional medical advice and treatment. You should always seek the advice of your physician or other medical professional if you have questions or concerns about a medical condition.


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