Finding Credible Medical Information Online

The Web can be a powerful resource when researching a medical condition or treatment. Unfortunately, among the high quality and credible reference materials available online, there are also numerous sites that provide inaccurate or misleading information. For this reason, when conducting your own research, it is important to evaluate sources for accuracy, authority, bias, currency, and comprehension.

For anyone researching a health topic, a good place to begin is with websites that belong to recognizable medical publishers, health institutions, or governmental agencies. These sites are likely to provide credible information. If you are unsure of the trustworthiness of an article or a website, asking the questions below can help you to assess a resource’s credibility.

Who runs the website?

A website’s address (URL) often indicates the type of organization that is responsible for its operation. All web addresses are organized in a hierarchy below a top-level domain, which is comprised of an alphabetic string appearing just after the last period and before the first forward slash in the URL. In the United States, the most common top-level domains include:

  • .gov: Indicates that the site is operated by a government agency (e.g. NIH.gov, HealthCare.gov).
  • .edu: Indicates that the site is operated by an educational institution (e.g. health.Harvard.edu)
  • .org: Domain commonly used by professional and medical organizations. However, its use is unrestricted (anyone with a computer can create their own .org web site).
  • .com (or other): Domains primarily used by commercial organizations.

The next step, after analyzing the website’s address, would be to locate the “About Us” page. All reliable websites will provide information about ownership. For example, you should be able to quickly and easily determine if the website is owned by a drug manufacturer, patient blogger, or an established publisher. If the website’s ownership is difficult to locate, you should consider seeking a different source of information.

What is the organization’s purpose?

After establishing who owns the website, try to determine the organization or institution’s purpose and potential sources of revenue.

  • Commercial Publishers: Many medical publishers generate revenue from advertising. This fact does not provide immediate cause to suspect bias. However, it does indicate that checking the website’s editorial policy may be worthwhile.
  • Medical Journals: Major journals typically serve as reliable sources, as they use expert peer-reviewers to vet medical research and conclusions prior to publication. Building and maintaining their reputation and credibility is often one of the foremost priorities of a journal’s editorial board. That being said, the inclusion of the word “Journal” in the name of a publication, does not automatically make it reliable! Some journals, particularly those with “author-pays” fee structures, have a financial incentive to accept and publish low-quality research. You should always review the journal’s publication policies and reputation prior to ruling out biases and judging the journal as a credible source.
  • Medical Service Providers: Providers often use their websites to demonstrate their experience and authority in a medical field, while simultaneously providing important information to their patients. Still, keep in mind that even medical practitioners can be biased toward treatments offered by their organization. Try to evaluate whether they provide patients with various treatment options, and always look for citations to research studies on the provider’s website.
  • Foundations: Foundations are often a great resource for finding credible medical information. However, when evaluating information, you should take note of the foundation’s funding sources and outside reputation. Note whether the website is trying to advance a political agenda or recruit patients on behalf of a for-profit enterprise.
  • Retailers: Be skeptical of any websites that sell a specific solution to the condition being discussed. The words “buy” or “shop” or “free” should be red flags that indicate the content on the website may be biased.
  • Pharmaceutical Companies: Drug and medical device manufacturers often provide important and credible information on their products, such as directions for use. However, if you are trying to evaluate the performance of one product relative to another, look elsewhere.

What is the source’s editorial policy?

Look for an editorial policy page. The page should explain their process for reviewing medical information and highlight the independence of the website’s editorial content from advertisers.

Who is the author and what is the evidence?

  • Verify that the article you are reading was written and/or reviewed by a qualified medical professional.
  • The author should cite supporting medical research. You should see references to medical journals, medical organizations, governmental agencies, etc. on the website.

Is the information current?

Medical science is a discipline that is continuously and rapidly changing. Guidelines and protocols are updated and new medications and treatments are brought to market every year. Accordingly, it is important to know when the content you are reading was written. The date of creation or last review should appear immediately above or below the article. Review the most current information, whenever possible.

ALWAYS consult multiple sources.

Never rely on a single source of information! Always consult at least two credible sources, preferably more if you have time.

Protect your privacy.

  • Beware of all requests for personal information. If a website requires registration, it is usually worthwhile to spend a few minutes learning about the operating organization and its reputation, prior to providing your name or contact information.
  • Read the fine print during registration to learn if your phone number or email address will be sold to a third-party!
  • When researching sensitive topics, turn on your browser’s “privacy mode.” This will prevent sites from reading or writing permanent cookies relating to your condition in your browser. It will also prevent your browser from storing your activity in the browser’s history.

The internet can be a wonderful resource for people hoping to independently find medical information. It is possible to make a general assessment of a website’s credibility as a source of information by asking a few simple questions. When conducting research, avoid jumping to conclusions and always do your best to find at least two credible sources of information. Lastly, and most importantly, always consult with a professional after you complete your research. Individuals should never self-diagnose a condition or modify a previously prescribed course of treatment, without first discussing their findings with a medical professional, such as a doctor or a pharmacist.

References

  1. Natinal Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, Finding and Evaluating Online Resources. Link
  2. National Institutes of Health. How To Evaluate Health Information on the Internet. Link
  3. MedlinePlus. Online Health Information - What Can You Trust? Link
  4. FamilyDoctor.org. Health Information on the Web: Finding Reliable Information. Link
  5. University of Washington. (2013) How to Find Trustworthy Information from the Internet. Aging and Physical Disability Rehabilitation Research and Training Center. Link