Searching for Health Information Online

While the internet offers consumers unprecedented access to information, it can be a double-edged sword for patients attempting to learn about healthcare. Searching for health information online is a great way to understand your diagnoses and treatment options, but not all online information is accurate. This article has some tips to help you distinguish between good and bad medical information, in addition to understanding your rights and responsibilities as a patient.

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 government, educational institutions, and nonprofit organizations aren't generally seeking to make money from their websites. As a result, they're free to provide relatively unbiased information. However, there are still a few prominent business-owned sites that have solid reputations for providing accurate health care information.

The internet domain suffix (the last few letters of the address, after the period) usually gives an important clue:

  • .gov - These are run by state, local, or federal governments and typically exist to provide accurate information to the public; .govs offering reliable health care information include HealthCare.gov and MedlinePlus.gov.
  • .edu - It's probably run by an educational institution, many of which operate reputable clinical research facilities; universities often publish information about the latest medical research (including Stanford) and articles about broader issues (such as an article on medical waste published by the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School).
  • .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, including Family Doctor.org and the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association (GLMA).
  • .com - This indicates that the site is most likely owned and operated by a for-profit business; while some .coms will provide information that serves their business needs, one of the most reputable health-related .coms is operated by the Mayo Clinic.

The information provided on a .com 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 drug companies urging patients to "ask [their] doctor" about a particular product. Furthermore, a site run by a company that produces aspirin will contain information on the benefits of aspirin, while minimizing the drug's risks. Even if the information is technically correct, it can still be misleading.

Some commercial websites 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.

Online Health Information: Who Wrote it and is it Current?

The next step in evaluating the information on a site is to check who wrote the content and when they 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 their 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.

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Medicine (part of the National Institutes of Health) discusses this and other tips for finding and evaluating online health care resources.

Be Wary of Giving Away Personal Information

Information about your health is very sensitive. Doctors and other medical practitioners are obligated to keep your medical records confidential, but other websites might not operate under the same rules. If a website asks for personal, financial, or medical information, be sure you understand the site's privacy policy, as well as the website's purposes for collecting the information.

Check Online Health 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:

Looking for Valid Health Care Information? An Attorney Can Help

If you're searching for health information online, you've probably noticed that some sites seems more reputable than others. Searching online is a great way to learn about your health and your health care rights, but consider speaking with a local health care attorney if you have additional questions or concerns or need an advocate in your corner.

Next Steps

Contact a qualified health care attorney to help navigate legal issues around your health care.

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