Evaluating Health Information on the Internet
While the Internet offers consumers unprecedented access to information, it can be a double-edged sword for patients attempting to learn about healthcare. Patients should certainly make use of the vast medical knowledge available on the Internet to help them understand their diagnoses and treatment options, but they must be careful to rely on accurate information. This article has some tips to help you distinguish between good and bad medical information.
Who Runs the Website and Why?
When you arrive at a website, the first thing you should do is check who runs the site and for what purpose. The last three letters of the URL usually give an important clue. Websites that end in ".gov" are run by state, local, or federal governments. These sites typically exist to provide accurate information to the public. On the other hand, if the address ends in ".edu," it's probably run by an educational institution. Finally, if the URL ends in ".org," the site is likely run by a nonprofit. The organizations behind these kinds of sites typically operate to educate the public about specific causes. Most importantly, the government, educational institutions, and nonprofit organizations aren't usually seeking to make money from their websites. As a result, they're free to provide relatively unbiased information.
Websites that end in ".com" are often run by commercial organizations trying to make a profit. The information on the site may be written in order to convince a reader to buy a product or sign up for a service the organization is offering. For example, a site run by a company that produces aspirin will contain information on the benefits of aspirin, while minimizing the drug's risks.
However, that doesn't mean all commercial websites are untrustworthy. Some sites exist to provide information and may make money by selling advertisement space. However, it's important to remember that the information on such sites is often written to attract readers. Thus, some articles may be focused on more exciting topics or on trending search terms, rather than on topics that are applicable to your situation.
Who Wrote the Content and Is it Up to Date?
The next step in evaluating the information on a site is to check who wrote the content and when he or she wrote it. The author or editor of the article should be listed on that article's page. You can then search that person's name to find his or her credentials and determine whether the writer is qualified to provide information on the matter.
Most medical articles will also display the date they were posted. Medical knowledge is constantly changing, but online articles will remain on the Internet until someone removes them. Remember that newer articles are more likely to contain accurate information than older articles.
Be Wary of Giving Away Personal Information
Check the Information against Reliable Sources
Finally, there are a number of websites that consistently provide accurate medical information. When in doubt, you can check these sites to make sure the article you're reading is reliable:
- The National Institute of Health is charged with funding medical research and making health information available to both patients and doctors.
- The Center for Disease Control catalogs all known diseases and researches how diseases spread as well as disease prevention.
- The U.S. Food and Drug Administration evaluates the safety and effectiveness of available drugs.
- The Federal Trade Commission ensures that all drugs sold are genuine and safe for consumers.