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October 28, 2020

How to Evaluate Health Information You Find Online

The good news is that plenty of online health-related information can be found nowadays. The problem? It can sometimes be hard to evaluate healthcare information — to tease out the good from the bad. So, what exactly should you look for? What red flags should you be aware of? When should you talk to your doctor? This post will provide guidance. 

First, as the National Institute on Aging (NIA) website points out, it’s important to take a close look at the source of the information and how current that article is. Information you find on sites of government agencies, such as the National Institute of Health (NIH), can be among the most trustworthy. Plus, they typically keep healthcare information online up to date. 

You can identify government agencies’ websites because the URL ends in “.gov.” Educational institutions have sites that end in “.edu”; nonprofit organizations usually have ones that end in “.org”; and commercial sites typically end in “.com.” These commercial ones can be from a hospital — or from a business or person who wants to sell you their products. So, this information may be accurate, or it could be biased. 

Pay attention to who writes the articles you read. What organization does that person work for? What is his or her expertise? Does the site indicate that a healthcare professional either wrote or reviewed the article? What is the purpose of the site? Are you able to contact the site if you have questions? 

And here’s an overall caution: If something you read seems too good to be true, it probably is. To evaluate health information that seems too wonderful, compare the information on that topic on sites that you have determined are trustworthy, such as the NIA or NIH. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also provides plenty of information on health topics. Plus, they have created training programs where older adults can be trained in discerning the legitimacy of the information you find on a health website. 

MedlinePlus is another one of the government agencies that provide quality health information, and they provide more tips to help you decide if what you read online is accurate. They recommend looking for scientific references included in the information and note how professional journals—such as the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) and the New England Journal of Medicine—can provide quality health information. 

Warnings they give about information online on health topics include:

  • One we mentioned earlier: that, if something seems too good to be true, proceed with caution.
  • Quick fixes often aren’t — even when they come with a money-back guarantee.
  • Beware of online discussion groups or forums. This health information isn’t typically regulated or even reviewed. People making recommendations may be trying to sell you products.
  • Don’t rely just on one site. If you read something of interest, see what other quality web sites have to say on the subject. 
  • Protect your personal information. Only buy products from websites with secure servers; these will have URLs that start with “https” instead of “http”—and never give out your Social Security number. 

MedlinePlus also notes that, while it’s good to be informed about your health, no form of online health information can be a substitute for a consultation with your medical team. If you have questions about your health or any treatments you are receiving or are interested in learning about, talk to your doctor. If you have information from an article, print it out and share it with your doctor.

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