How to find trustworthy health information online
The Internet is packed with trustworthy medical information you can use — if you know what to look for. Here are 4 signs you can trust the health advice you’re reading online.
When you’re worried about a health symptom or want to learn more about a condition, where’s the first place you turn? If you’re like most Americans, you probably head to your phone or computer and do a web search. And you’re sure to get plenty of results. But not everything that turns up will be trustworthy health information or advice you can count on.
“Health disinformation is rampant on the Internet,” warns Catherine Johnson, MD. Dr. Johnson is founder and medical director of Precision Medical Care. “So in general: Trust but verify.” How?
Step 1: Always check with your doctor before taking any medical advice. Here are 4 more ways to know if you can trust what you’re reading online.
1. Look at what comes after the dot.
“When looking online for medical advice, be sure the source is credible,” says Mark Ambler, MD. Dr. Ambler is the associate chief of family medicine at Austin Regional Clinic in Texas. A quick tipoff? The website’s URL. Reliable sites include government agencies, which end in .gov. Also on the list:
- National health organizations.
- Patient advocacy organizations.
- Medical centers.
Their URLs typically end with .org. Good government and health organization resources include:
That’s not to say that sites ending in .com can’t be trusted. But be critical. If you’re reading an article, it should quote experts and link to related research. Some articles are reviewed by medical professionals. Others are written by them. Both are a great sign.
For instance, the digital health management app Wellframe has a private health library. It’s stocked with articles, videos, and other health resources, all reviewed and approved by clinicians. All information in the library is fact-checked. And it often cites scientific studies and articles.
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2. Study the studies.
Have you come across research you want to learn more about? Take a look at the quality of the research. Some questions to think about:
- Was the study done with humans? Some research is done on animals. It’s helpful for scientists. But it doesn’t always mean the results are true for you.
- How many people were in the study? Fewer than 100 is thought of as a small study. You should take these results with a grain of salt.
- Was the study peer-reviewed and published in a reputable journal? That means that experts have given the study their stamp of approval. This isn’t always easy to figure out, especially if you’re not used to reading science journals. But you can usually find out on the journal’s website.
If you don’t quite get what you’re reading, don’t worry. “Many people have trouble understanding what can often be very academic and jargon-filled writing,” says Caitlin Donovan. Donovan is the senior public relations director at the National Patient Advocate Foundation. “Reading the summary and the conclusions can give the reader a good overview.” Those sections are often easier to follow.
To dig deeper, Donovan suggests searching for the study online. Did reputable news outlets write about it? Did the researchers’ university or organization publish a news release or blog post that explains the study’s findings in simple terms? Both point to more valid research.
3. Check the date.
“The more current a study is, the better,” says Donovan. Robin Watkins, director of healthcare at Power to Decide, agrees. “New research and studies come out all the time. So it’s important to know from the start when the information was written.”
That said, older research isn’t always out of date. “If an article is more than 5 years old, it doesn’t mean that it’s wrong or useless,” says Watkins. “But it’s a good idea to double-check the information with another source. Or see if there are more recent studies.”
4. Give it the sniff test.
You know the saying that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is? That goes for anything you find online. So be wary of any sites that promise instant results or miracle cures. “Further, any article online that starts with, ‘What they don’t want you to know!’ or any other conspiracy-minded outlook is probably bogus,” Donovan says.
Donovan also warns against getting health info on social media. “It may go against many people’s instincts. But when it comes to medical information, establishment is really best.”
Finally, don’t forget about the best sources of all: the doctors and nurses you know and trust. “If you have concerns, problems, or questions and you aren’t finding the answers you need online, follow up with your healthcare provider,” says Watkins. They can make sure you’re getting the most up-to-date info possible.
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