Online health information: Is it reliable?
Many older adults share a common concern: “How can I trust the health information I find on the Internet?”
There are thousands of medical websites. Some provide reliable health information. Some do not. Some of the medical news is current. Some of it is not. Choosing which websites to trust is an important step in gathering reliable health information.
Where can I find reliable health information online?
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) website is a good place to start for reliable health information.
As a rule, health websites sponsored by Federal Government agencies are good sources of information. You can reach all Federal websites by visiting usa.gov. Large professional organizations and well-known medical schools may also be good sources of health information.
Questions to ask before trusting a website
As you search online, you are likely to find websites for many health agencies and organizations that are not well-known. By answering the following questions, you should be able to find more information about these websites. A lot of these details might be found in the website’s “About Us” section.
- Who sponsors/hosts the website? Is that information easy to find? Websites cost money to create and update. Is the source of funding (sponsor) clear? Knowing who is funding the website may give you insight into the mission or goal of the site. Sometimes, the website address (called a URL) is helpful. For example:
* .gov identifies a U.S. government agency
* .edu identifies an educational institution, like a school, college, or university
* .org usually identifies nonprofit organizations (such as professional groups; scientific, medical, or research societies; advocacy groups)
* .com identifies commercial websites (such as businesses, pharmaceutical companies and sometimes hospitals)
- Who wrote the information? Who reviewed it? Authors and contributors are often, but not always, identified. If the author is listed, ask yourself: Is this person an expert in the field? Does this person work for an organization and, if so, what are the goals of the organization? A contributor’s connection to the website, and any financial stake he or she has in the information on the website, should be clear.
Is the health information written or reviewed by a healthcare professional? Dependable websites will tell you where their health information came from and how and when it was reviewed.
Trustworthy websites will have contact information that you can use to reach the site’s sponsor or authors. An email address, phone number and/or mailing address might be listed at the bottom of every page or on a separate “About Us” or “Contact Us” page.
Be careful about testimonials. Personal stories may be helpful and comforting, but not everyone experiences health problems the same way. Also, there is a big difference between a website, blog or social media page developed by a single person interested in a topic, and a website developed using strong scientific evidence (that is, information gathered from research).
No information should replace seeing a doctor or other health professional who can give you advice that caters to your specific situation.
- When was the information written? Look for websites that stay current with their health information. You do not want to make decisions about your care based on out-of-date information. Often, the bottom of the page will have a date. Pages on the same site may be updated at different times—some may be updated more often than others. Older information is not useless, but using the most current, evidence-based information is best.
- What is the purpose of the site? Why was the site created? Know the motive or goal of the website so you can better judge its content. Is the purpose of the site to inform or explain? Or is it trying to sell a product? Choose information based on scientific evidence rather than one person’s opinion.
- How can I protect my health information? If you are asked to share personal information, be sure to find out how the information will be used. Secure websites that collect personal information responsibly have an “s” after “http” in the start of their website address (https://) and often require that you create a username and password.
BE CAREFUL about sharing your Social Security number. Find out why your number is needed, how it will be used, and what will happen if you do not share this information. Only enter your Social Security number on secure websites. You might consider calling your doctor’s office or health insurance company to give this information over the phone, rather than giving it online.
Use common sense when browsing the Internet. Do not open unexpected links. Hover your mouse over a link to confirm that clicking it will take you to a reputable website.
- Does the website offer quick and easy solutions to your health problems? Are miracle cures promised? Be careful of websites or companies that claim any one remedy will cure a lot of different illnesses. Question dramatic writing or cures that seem too good to be true. Make sure you can find other websites with the same information. Even if the website links to a trustworthy source, it does not mean the site has the other organization’s endorsement or support.
Social media and health information
Social media sites, such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, are online communities where people connect with friends, family, and strangers. Sometimes, you might find health information or health news on social media. Some of this information may be true, and some of it may not be. Recognize that just because a post is from a friend or colleague, it does not necessarily mean it is true or scientifically accurate.
Check the source of the information, and make sure the author is credible. Fact-checking websites can also help you figure out if a story is reliable.
Trust yourself and talk to your doctor
Use common sense and good judgment when looking at health information online. There are websites on nearly every health topic, and many have no rules overseeing the quality of the information provided. Use the information you find online as one tool to become more informed. Do not count on any one website, and check your sources. Discuss what you find with your doctor, before making any changes to your health care.
A quick checklist
You can use the following checklist to help make sure that the health information you are reading online can be trusted. You might want to keep this checklist by your computer.
- Is the sponsor/owner of the website a Federal agency, medical school, or large professional or nonprofit organization, or is it related to one of these?
- If not sponsored by a Federal agency, medical school, or large professional or nonprofit organization, is the website written by a healthcare professional or does it reference one of these trustworthy sources for its health information?
- Why was the site created? Is the mission or goal of the website sponsor clear?
- Can you see who works for the agency or organization and who authored the information? Is there a way to contact the sponsor of the website?
- When was the information written or webpage last updated?
- Is your privacy protected?
- Does the website offer unbelievable solutions to your health problem(s)? Are quick, miracle cures promised?
For more information about reliable health websites:
* MedlinePlus: National Library of Medicine, medlineplus.gov
* Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services: 800-633-4227 (toll-free), 877-486-2048 (TTY/toll-free), cms.gov/, medicare.gov
* Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): 800-232-4636 (toll-free), 888-232-6348 (TTY/toll-free), email email@example.com, cdc.gov
* U.S. Food and Drug Administration: 888-463-6332 (toll-free), email firstname.lastname@example.org, fda.gov