The Changing Way We Seek Health Information
The internet has changed how patients view and gain access to health information. Many patients come to the doctor’s office armed with information from medical websites about their condition, as well as potential treatments. However, not all medical websites are created equal. Patients should look for credible websites and avoid websites that are not authoritative.
One of the simplest ways to determine if a medical website is credible is to look at the extension at the end of the website. If the website ends in .edu it is hosted by a university, and it is probably credible. However, keep in mind that some universities allow students to create personal websites and blogs and host them on the university’s website, so it is important to look at the department and author of the information as well. For the site to be credible, the information should come from a faculty or staff member of the university. One noteworthy medical website that is hosted by a university is the Harvard Medical School website. This website contains information about the Harvard Health Publications, podcasts, and videos about various health topics.
Websites that end in .gov are also credible, because they are hosted by the government. These sites are never personal in nature and most of them are extensively reviewed before the information is placed online. One example of a trustworthy medical website with a .gov ending is the Centers for Disease Control website. This website contains extensive information about public health concerns, such as influenza and sexually transmitted diseases, among other conditions.
Organizations have websites that end in .org. Many for profit as well as non-profit health websites have .org endings. These websites often contain extensive information about a number of health topics, and they are also likely to have audio versions of the information as well as translations of the information. One often-visited medical website that ends in .org is The KidsHealth website. This website focuses on information about the medical issues that are relevant to children.
However, do not discount all .com websites. Although most .com websites are associated with sales, this is not always the case. For example, The Mayo Clinic website ends in .com, yet it is one of the most respected and well-researched medical websites on the internet.
Determining if a Medical Website is Credible
There is a wealth of medical information online, but not all of it is credible. The following list contains characteristics of a credible medical website:
- Authored by a physician, a professor with a Ph.D. in a health-related field, or another health professional such as a nurse.
- Contains references at the end of the information. Credible information should have academic references or at least links to other credible sites.
- Lists the date the information was updated. To be credible and useful, the medical information should be current.
- Lists who reviewed the information. Peer-review is an important component for establishing the credibility of the information.
Red Flags for a Bad Medical Website
Just as there are hallmarks of a credible website, there are also signs of bad information. Some of these red flags include:
- The site contains “Wiki” in the name. Wikis are websites that are written by the public, and they often are not properly reviewed or written by experts.
- The site is a blog. Unless the blog is part of an established, credible medical website, it is difficult to verify the author’s credentials. Anyone can claim to be a physician on a blog.
- There is no author listed, or the author has no established medical expertise.
- No references in the text or at the end. If there are no references, you can’t easily verify the source of their information.
Be a Skeptical Consumer of Medical Information
Do not ever assume that medical information on a website is credible unless you have carefully assessed the information, such as by using the checklist in this article. Be cautious when using medical information that you found online. Do not ever attempt to treat yourself for a condition based on information you find online. Even if the information is credible, it may not be appropriate for your needs. For example, some treatments are not appropriate for those taking certain medication, or for children or patients with other, concurrent, health conditions. Always consult a physician before you attempt to diagnose or treat a condition.