The Smart Searcher: A Guide to Online Medical Advice

Updated:Jun 20,2013

Victorious Woman Using Laptop Raising ArmsSearching the Internet for medical advice can leave anyone with a bad case of information overload. The Internet can be very helpful, of course, but you have to know how to sort the reliable science from the junk.

The first thing to do when reading a medical site is to know your source. There should be an “About Us” tag that tells you who maintains the site and why. If this section is missing, or if the site seems focused on selling something, look elsewhere or proceed with skepticism.

Who can you trust?

The most reliable sources include accredited medical schools, university teaching hospitals and reputable nonprofit organizations such as the American Heart Association. These sites (which end in .edu and .org) provide health information and libraries. Government sources such as the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Health and Human Services are also reliable. (These sites end in .gov.)

Getting your source is only part of the equation. “You should also check with your healthcare provider,” said Mary Cushman, M.D., a professor of medicine at the University of Vermont Medical School.

“I encourage my patients to share what they’re reading online with me,” said Cushman, also an American Heart Association volunteer. “It’s not just about verifying the credibility of the source. It’s also an opportunity to provide context and follow-up on a topic they may be learning about for the first time. I also point them to sites I trust and approve of.”

If it sounds too good to be true …

You should be especially skeptical of news headlines about miracle cures or unlikely treatment breakthroughs. Again, apply the “know your source” principle.
In general, the most credible research is done in large academic institutions or government centers such as the NIH or CDC. The highest-quality studies are published in “peer-reviewed” or “refereed” journals such as Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association, the New England Journal of Medicine or the Journal of the American Medical Association. These publications only accept articles that have been rigorously evaluated by medical experts. For a list of peer-reviewed journals, visit Ulrich’s Periodical Directory Online.

According to my best friend’s cousin’s boss …

Medical blogs or chat rooms are a great way to connect with others who share your health concerns, but remember that these people may not be experts.

“You don’t really know who that person is online,” Cushman said. “No matter how good their intentions, don’t take their word for it. Check with your doctor.”  

The National Library of Medicine has created a 16-minute online tutorial that teaches you how to evaluate health information on the Web. Find the tutorial here.

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