Searching for medical advice online can never replace a visit to your doctor. According to a 2013 Pew Research Center study, 1 in 3 Americans typed their symptoms into search engines and medical websites before actually seeing their physician.
Jean Winkler, the medical librarian at the Connie Delaney Medical Library at Valley View Hospital, says you can’t trust any single site to always have the best or most up-to-date information on any condition, but some sites are more likely to be helpful than others.
She offers several ways to help you weed through the online clutter and get reliable information:
1. Consider the provider: Is it an organization (.org) or a company website with a .com in the web address. Some websites want to motivate visitors to buy something. If you come across a website where it’s difficult to determine what is an advertisement or what is the actual content, take the information with a grain of salt. Some sites tailor the information on their page to please their advertisers. Winkler advises on every site to click on the “About Us” button, which will explain who they are and what their policies are.
2. Take the time to do due diligence: Know if the site is from an original source or if it has repurposed content from somewhere else. Does the site actually give an opinion or report on original research?
3. How current is the site? Most sites post when information is updated. If links aren’t up-to-date, the site is not offering current information.
4. Be leery of sites that offer medical services. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
5. Look for endorsements from HON, the Health On the Net Foundation, which promotes and guides the deployment of useful and reliable online health information, and its appropriate and efficient use or URAC, formerly known as the Utilization Review Accreditation Commission, a nonprofit organization promoting health care quality by accrediting healthcare organizations. They have specific criteria that need to be met before they will allow the use of their logo to endorse a medical website.
“People can become quickly overwhelmed and discouraged with what’s out there on the Internet and give up,” Winkler said. “We can help an individual learn how to evaluate resources and consider the source to help patients discern the information.” The Connie Delaney Medical Library has about 2,500 consumer health books as well as magazines, DVDs and CDs. Winkler and her team are available to the public to assist patients with both online and print searches, helping individuals find the tools that best meet their needs.
The Medical Library Association has also put together a list of consumer health sites that it has deemed “most useful”: http://www.mlanet.org/resources/userguide.html.
The list includes the association’s favorite sites for information about cancer, diabetes and heart disease.
Most people who search for health information online go straight to search engines such as Google or Bing for the sake of convenience, the Pew study found. And while that’s OK, you can help ensure that you get the best information by narrowing your search terms.
For example, type in “cancer, chemotherapy, side effects” rather than just “cancer.” Or “children flu shot, AAP” to get information about the flu shot from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Winkler also recommends MedlinePlus, a website at http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus sponsored by the National Institutes of Health and managed by the U.S. National Library of Medicine. It has easy-to-read and understandable definitions and explanations of diseases, drugs and supplements. Each entry is accompanied by links to other sites and research deemed trustworthy by the medical archivists.