Did you know that 80% of adult internet users—i.e., 93 million Americans—have searched for reliable health information online for at least one of 16 major topics? As the Pew Internet & American Life Project study states, going on the internet to find “health or medical information one of the most popular activities online, after email (93%) and researching a product or service before buying it (83%).”
Of that 80%, the most frequent searches were for “information about a specific disease or medical problem (63 percent) or a particular medical treatment or procedure (47 percent)”—which should come as no surprise to the chronic diseases and conditions community. While the internet is a valuable tool, finding trustworthy resources amid its vastness can be both overwhelming and discouraging when you’re looking for answers for yourself or a loved one.
So, how do you sift through the overabundance of medical misinformation that’s out there in order to get to the good stuff? Before you pick up your electronic device of choice and start rapid-fire Googling, get ready to take some notes as you read through our patient’s guide on how to find reliable health information online.
Understanding the dangers of unreliable sources
STAT, a U.S. health news website, states, “Americans consume an unhealthy diet of health misinformation. Of the sites analyzed by NewsGuard [a service run by journalists that rates website reliability], 11% provide misinformation about health; in other words, more than 1 in 10 news websites accessed by Americans include bad information about health.”
It’s not always easy to tell if health information online is inaccurate, incomplete, or simply untrue, but the dangers of believing the first source you find are a risk not worth taking. A health website with false or misleading information can “cause individual and social harm by nurturing false beliefs about medicine, disease, and prevention,” according to an AMA Journal of Ethics article.
Who regulates medical and health information online in the U.S.?
The U.S. federal government has three organizations that act as watchdogs:
- The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) deals with food, including dietary supplements, and is on the lookout for illegal products with unsafe, false, and/or misleading claims.
- The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) protects consumers and regulates the way dietary supplements advertise. They also investigate complaints about false and/or misleading claims online.
- The Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), supports research and distributes results done on dietary supplements. They also offer educational materials on dietary supplements and other related health information.
Moreover, there is health IT legislation in place, which includes the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996 and the Affordable Care Act of 2010. While all of these efforts do not go unnoticed, there is still a great need for improvement in the regulation of online health resources in order to eliminate medical misinformation.
What should I be on the lookout for?
When you’re evaluating the quality and validity of health information online, these 11 questions should be easy to answer. If they aren’t, chances are it’s not a credible source. As a general rule of thumb, it’s always better to err on the side of skepticism until proven otherwise.
1. Is the website secure?
When a website address (or URL) has an “s” after “http,” it stands for “secure.” This is often used to demonstrate security when inputting personal data, but it’s also a general indicator that a website is legitimate and cares about protecting its users.
2. What type of website is it?
From the URL, you can also obtain information on what type of website it is—and who funds or sponsors it.
- A U.S. government agency URL will end in “.gov.”
- An educational institution (colleges, schools, and universities) will end in “.edu.”
- A nonprofit organization (advocacy groups, medical, research, or scientific societies, and professional groups) will typically end in “.org.”
- A commercial website (businesses, sometimes hospitals, and pharmaceutical companies) will likely end in “.com.”
3. Who runs the website?
It should be very clear who the company or organization is behind a website. There should be an “About Us” or “Who We Are” page that clearly details who they are, what they do, and what their backstory is. A “Mission” page is also a good sign and may either be its own separate page or worked into the “About Us” page.
4. Is the website offering “quick,” “easy,” or “miracle” cures or solutions?
This is a big red flag. Websites that offer up miracle cures, remedies, and solutions for one or more illnesses probably seem too good to be true—and it’s because they are. You should always question any information that seems overly dramatic and makes many lofty claims or promises. Even if the website links to well-known sources, that doesn’t mean the well-known source endorses or supports them.
5. Can you verify the information? Have other reputable websites posted the same facts?
Do a quick search to see if any other reputable websites mention the same information. They should appear on more than one website if they are proven facts verified by medical experts. If they don’t, it’s a sign to move on.
6. Where does the website’s information come from?
Websites are typically made up of both original content and information obtained from other sources. Any information that comes from another source should be identified as such. This is typically done with quotation marks around direct quotes, written attribution to the author and/or source, and a link to the original source.
7. Do they clearly cite their sources?
When stating facts—including, but not limited to, data-based, medical, and/or scientific figures—evidence, or sources, should be clearly cited. There should also be a clear distinction made between facts and opinions, if applicable.
8. Has the information been reviewed?
Particularly in the healthcare and medical fields, all information should be reviewed by experts with medical credentials before being distributed to the general public. This could be an individual or a group of people, such as an advisory council. You’ll find this information in one of two places: in each article—typically near, or underneath, the author’s name with “reviewed by”—or in a general location on the website that applies to all of the site’s content.
9. Can you easily find a date the information was published and/or updated on?
All content—web pages, articles, videos, podcasts, and other related source types—should have the date it was published highly visible. In addition, health, medical, and scientific content should be regularly reviewed and updated whenever necessary. Even if nothing has changed, the website should indicate that the information has been reviewed as confirmation that it’s still valid.
11. Can you easily contact the website’s owner?
Every reliable website will have a “Contact Us” page for users or readers with feedback, problems, and/or questions. On this page, you will usually find a contact form to fill out, which gets sent to the website’s owner, and/or a phone number or email address to reach them at.
What should I do with the sources I find?
Once you’ve verified a handful of go-to sources for quality and trustworthy information, make a list of them—whether bookmarked in a folder in your browser, typed in a note in your phone, or jotted down on a piece of paper. This will make it easier to refer back to knowledgeable sources for any future questions you may have. In the same vein, it may also be helpful to make a second list of sources that you have reviewed and deemed unacceptable so you know what websites to avoid in the future.
With your new information and sources in hand, make sure to visit your doctor and share with him or her what you’ve found. You should go through everything together before making any changes to your care or how you manage your condition or disease. And remember—the information you find online is just one tool to becoming more informed, and it’s important to not rely entirely nor solely on what you’ve found in a Google search.
Want help getting started? Head to MedlinePlus.gov and read “Evaluating Health Information,” which is full of links to dependable medical sources.
Gregory, J. (2019, July 26). “Health websites are notoriously misleading. So we rated their reliability.” STAT.
National Institute on Aging. (2018, Oct. 31). “Online Health Information: Is It Reliable?”. National Institutes of Health.
Office of Dietary Supplements. (2011, June 24). “How To Evaluate Health Information on the Internet: Questions and Answers.” National Institutes of Health.
Weaver, J. (2003, July 16). “More people search for health online.” MSNBC.
Wu, J. T., & McCormick, J. B. (2018, Nov. 1). “Why Health Professionals Should Speak Out Against False Beliefs on the Internet.” American Medical Association Journal of Ethics.
Andy is the founder and CEO of Responsum Health. A former staff person for Senator Edward M. Kennedy on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, he has been a healthcare policy expert in Washington, D.C., for nearly two decades. In addition to his work for Responsum, he is co-founder of one of the nation’s leading healthcare policy firms, Thorn Run Partners.