“Don’t believe everything you read.”
It’s an old warning. But it is especially true for health-related information you find on the internet.
The internet can be a great resource. There are millions of websites that offer health-related information. You can learn about a specific disease or health condition. You can also find tips on staying healthy. But among these websites, many present myths and half-truths as if they are facts.
Path to improved health
To avoid unreliable health information when you’re searching the internet, ask yourself the following questions.
Where did this information come from?
Any website that provides health-related information should say where it got the information. See if you can find answers to the following questions:
- Who wrote this information? The person or group that runs the website doesn’t always write the information. Many health-related websites post information that comes from other sources. If this is the case, the original source should be clearly stated.
- Sometimes a health care professional didn’t write the information. If they didn’t, was it reviewed by a doctor or medical expert?
- Some information contains numbers and statistics. Is the source of the numbers listed? Is it a reliable source?
- Does something on the website appear to be someone’s opinion rather than a fact? If so, is the opinion from a qualified person or group? This could include a doctor or medical organization.
How current is this information?
Health information is constantly changing. Researchers learn new things about diseases and their treatments all the time. Good health-related information should be up to date. Many webpages will post the date when the page was last reviewed or updated. You can usually find this date at the very bottom of the page. If this date isn’t included, check to see whether the page has a copyright line. This tells you when the information was originally written. Look for pages that have been reviewed in the past 1 to 2 years. If it’s been longer than that, look for more recently updated information.
Who is responsible for the content of the website?
Before believing what you read, find out who is responsible for information on the website. Is it an organization, a company, or an individual person? This can make a difference in how reliable the information is.
Websites published by an organization
Health-related websites may be published by different organizations:
- The U.S. government (.gov)
- A nonprofit organization (.org)
- A college or university (.edu)
These sites are usually the most reliable sources of health information. They’re usually not supported by for-profit companies. These could include drug or insurance companies. However, you still need to find out where these sites get their information.
Websites published by a company
Sites with .com web addresses may represent a specific company. They may be published by a company that uses the internet to sell products or services. These are called commercial sites. Commercial sites can offer useful and accurate information. But be careful about believing all the information you read on these sites, even if they are news organizations. The company that pays for the site could have something to gain from it. The information may not be fair and accurate. It’s a good idea to double-check what you read on commercial websites.
Websites published by an individual
Websites published by individuals may offer support and advice. They can help you cope with certain conditions and their treatments. They can contain reliable and useful information. However, it’s very important to double-check health information on these sites. Many of them do contain good information. But some may contain myths, rumors, or misinformation.
To find out who is responsible for the website, look at the site’s home page. If the home page doesn’t tell you who publishes the site, look for a link that says “About us” or “About this site.” Often, this link will be at the bottom of the home page. Clicking on this link will usually take you to a new page. This page explains who is responsible for the information on the site.
Things to consider
Information that you find on a website does not replace your doctor’s advice. Your doctor is the best person to answer questions about your personal health. If you read something on the internet that doesn’t agree with what your doctor has told you, ask them about it.
Questions to ask your doctor
- Can you give me good, internet resources for searching medical information?
- Which kinds of websites provide the most reliable information?
- Are there any websites I should avoid?
- Should I call if I read something on a reliable health-related website that could affect me?
National Institute on Aging: Online Health Information: Is It Reliable?
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.