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Sorting Through Online Health Sources

February 23, 2012

You come home from an appointment with health-care provider and want to find out more about a course of treatment she recommended to you. Or a friend or family member just got a diagnosis you’d like to learn more about. Nowadays, most of us turn to the Internet for medical information and advice. It’s fast and free… but is it reliable? The fact is, any Tom, Dick or Mary can start a website or blog to post health-care advice. Here are some quick tips for assessing the flood of health information available online.

  1. Look for the sponsor of the website. Is the site affiliated with a reputable hospital or university, like the MD Anderson Cancer Center or the Harvard School of Public Health? Is it sponsored by a health organization or office like the Centers for Disease Control or the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine? Is it part of a doctor’s, nutritionist’s, nurse practitioner’s or naturopath’s practice? If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” you’re likely to find sound information.
  2. Determine who wrote the article. Does she have a reputable degree, like an M.D., N.D. (naturopathic doctor), M.S. (master of science) or MPH (master of public health)? If the article offers nutrition advice, doe the writer have a degree in nutrition? If the author has “Ph.D.” after his name, does he say in what field he got his degree and if it is health-related? (A doctorate in math or English is swell, but doesn’t prepare you to give health advice.)
  3. Make sure the author names her sources. Does she list her references or link to the sites from which she drew his information? Does she write, “According to the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh,…” Trustworthy authors cite their sources both to give credit where credit is due and to point you in the direction of more information.
  4. See if the site boasts advertising. Is it touting supplements and equipment as well as advice? Opt for sites that are information-focused rather than marketing-focused – those that don’t have shopping carts or try to sell you products while dispensing health information.
  5. Go back to the source. If you read about a new “miracle drug” in the New York Times or on a blog, dig a little deeper and locate the actual study that the writer reported on. Google Scholar is a division of the search engine Google that turns up scholarly studies and research papers. If you have trouble understanding the science-speak, ask a health-care counselor or medical professional to assist you.

Your health is your most valuable asset – don’t trust it to just any online source!

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