Ask the internet anything, and you’ll get an answer. And, while this is extremely convenient, it can also be problematic. Especially when it comes to your health.
Most of us — nearly 60 percent External Site — have gone online for health information in the last year. While it’s possible to find reliable health information online, it’s likely you’ll have to sort through a lot to get there.
Use these tips to help you avoid inaccurate, unreliable, or just plain bogus information.
Should you trust that website? Ask these questions.
Before you type your health question into a Google search bar, remember this: Any person or organization can create a website. It’s up to you to figure out what is factual. .
Whose site is it?
Before you click on a web address, check the three letters at the end of the site’s name. If it ends in “.edu” (educational) or “.gov” (government), you are more likely to find credible information. However, some sites may use these domains to mislead you. Other domains, like “.org” (nonprofits), and “.com” (commercial) may have credible information, but consider the organization’s purpose and objective to determine if it could be biased. Next, check the “About Us” section, typically on the bottom of the home page, to make sure the site represents an established institution with a proven track record of providing factual information.
What is the site’s primary purpose?
Is the sponsor of the site trying to sell you a product or service? Or is the purpose of the website to provide resources and information? One way to avoid untrustworthy health information is to look for sites with expertise in the kind of information you are seeking. For example, if you’re looking for information about the flu vaccine, check out medical websites, such as The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention External Site or WebMD® External Site. For information about cancer, visit the American Cancer Society® External Site.
Where did the information come from?
Look for reputable medical research to back up health claims. Who are the experts cited in the story? Are the health claims backed up by legitimate studies? Are the links to the research or studies credible? It is sometimes difficult to know, so be wary of anything that seems self-serving or without peer-reviewed research. And remember, just because the author says they are a doctor or health expert, doesn’t mean it’s true. One way to check if a health claim is credible is to see if you can find the same information on other, more reputable websites. Or better yet, talk to your doctor.
"Peer-reviewed medical journals and information from teaching medical centers like the Mayo Clinic and WebMD are all very good at patient education. However, it's always best to ask your provider which websites they feel are reputable, because different providers may have different opinions on the best places to go for health information," says Dr. Tim Gutshall, senior medical director at Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield.
Are the health claims too good to be true?
You’ve heard the expression, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” Well, it’s particularly true online. If a website offers miracle cures or solutions that seem like a magic bullet, it’s in your best interest to be skeptical. Beware of terms such as “scientific breakthrough,” “miracle cure,” “secret ingredient,” or “ancient remedy.” Products, services and treatments that boast amazing, fast results, with iffy scientific evidence, should raise red flags.
How up-to-date is the information?
Beware of outdated information, sources, or links to old studies or research. Disease prevention, health research and medical treatments are constantly changing, and studies sourced in 2001 may be disproved or updated by 2021. Reputable websites review and update content on a regular basis. They should clearly post the most recent update or review date where it can be easily seen.
Does the website protect your privacy?
Are you reading an advertisement?
In most printed magazines, you’ll see content that is actually paid advertising. While advertisers are getting savvy at making their advertisements look like regular content, most publishers will mark that it is an “advertising feature” at the top of the page, to help avoid confusion. This type of labeling is less likely to happen online, and therefore, it’s easier to be fooled. If the source is only providing information about certain aspects of a health condition that supports their product or service, be careful. Always check with your doctor before beginning any new treatment or health-related program.
Here are a few additional sources of health information to watch out for:
- Online health support groups. Talking about medical issues online is a great way to connect with others. However, it’s important to remember the people you meet online are not qualified health care professionals, and may not be giving you credible advice. Even if someone shares the same medical issues as you, they have a different health history, and their medical treatment may be quite different from yours. Their advice is no substitute for your doctor. If you want a second opinion, seek help from medical professionals, not a support group.
- Testimonials or product reviews. Online testimonials and reviews can be convincing, especially if you are feeling desperate for a cure to a health problem. Even if the testimonial seems legitimate, consider that the source may have been paid for their endorsement, or given free products or services. Here are a few tips for uncovering which online reviews are fake External Site.
So, where should you go for trustworthy information? Start here.
Here are our recommendations for the best sources for health information:
- Your personal doctor. This probably doesn’t come as a surprise. A positive relationship with your personal doctor is associated with greater satisfaction, better overall health and lower hospital and emergency use. Use these tips to find the right doctor.
- Your pharmacist. When it comes to your medications, the experts are at the pharmacy. Talking to a pharmacist can help you understand when to take your medication, dosing, side effects and what to do if you miss a dose.
- BeWell 24/7SM. Our free health information hotline, BeWell 24/7, is available anytime for advice based on your symptoms, and recommendations on where to go for care. Call 844-84-BEWELL for reliable health information, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
- myWellmark®. Your personal health care information is at your fingertips with myWellmark. It’s powerful, secure and easy to use. Register here Opens New Window, and be sure to download the mobile app Opens New Window so you can manage your health care at home or on the go.
- Websites you can trust. If you’re looking for a dependable online resource you can trust, The National Institutes of Health (NIH) External Site is a good place to start. Also, MedlinePlus.gov External Site is a website from the NIH’s National Library of Medicine External Site. It also has dependable consumer information about more than 1,000 health-related topics. For more information about how to evaluate health information online, use their online tutorial External Site.
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- Nia.nih.gov — Online Health Information: Is It Reliable? External Site
- MedlinePlus.gov — Evaluating Health Information External Site
- MedlinePlus.gov — Checklist: Evaluating Internet Health Information External Site
- Ods.od.nih.gov — How To Evaluate Health Information on the Internet: Questions and Answers External Site