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Three out of four web users say they search for health information online, according to Pew Research. But how can you know if that info is reliable? Anyone can publish a website, and it’s common for online health advice to come with another agenda. Want to get rid of belly fat by eating pomegranates? Or cure your fatigue with this pill that you can only get from that doctor? Click right here.
Even mainstream sources can be suspect. WebMD exists in the first place to make money from advertising, not to fix your ingrown toenail (although it’s a reasonable source of info). Researchers have found that half of the medical advice from Dr. Oz, a TV celebrity, is baseless or flat-out wrong. More than half the students who responded to a Student Health 101 survey said they question the reliability of a health information source at least twice a week.
This guide helps you know what to look for in a health website and recognize red flags, so you can sort the best from the bogus. For additional quick reads, see Find out more today.
All or most of the content has been created within the past five years.
Some sites cite older information. This is OK if they are referencing a landmark finding or providing context for a newer study.
The date the content was most recently updated may be provided at the bottom of the page. Not all websites have dates. If the source is reputable, this is OK.
Cites scientific literature
Medical facts are cited and sourced in footnotes or on a sources page.
The content is based on published, peer-reviewed studies by researchers affiliated with universities or other respected institutions, such as NIH.
- Be wary of research sponsored by an organization that has an interest in the outcome: e.g., a study on soda and obesity sponsored by the soft drinks industry.
Ideally, the content is based on a meta-analysis or systematic review. These analyze data from many studies on the same topic. Meta-analyses are much more comprehensive and broadly applicable than any individual study. The Cochrane Library and some other organizations provide systematic reviews (see Health sites to rely on).
The content references studies from a range of sources.
- If three out of five sources are the work of the same researcher, tread carefully.
The research cited involved a large number of human participants.
- If the findings were based on a dozen mice, forget it.
Acknowledges when research is incomplete or conflicting.
- Unbalanced articles are often trying to sell a product or belief.
The content does not assume that correlation equals causation. For example, the divorce rate in Maine decreased at roughly the same rate as the consumption of margarine. This doesn’t mean that margarine consumption affects divorce rates, or vice versa. For more conversation-worthy examples, click the link.
Reputable site author and funding source
Reliable sources include government departments, such as NIH; universities; and certain evidence-based journals (e.g., Science).
There are no obvious conflicts of interest involving the author(s) or the organization(s)
that sponsored the research.
- If the author is a lobbyist in Washington DC, it’s all over.
To get a better sense of the source, click on About Us or the equivalent web page.
No talk of “Miracle cure!” or “Breakthrough!” Science usually advances in small increments. A single study rarely changes everything.
“Miracle cures” and so on are usually a sales pitch. Don’t fall for it.
- Exclamation marks or price tags
Trustworthy language is not overly technical. But it shouldn’t be “dumbed down” to the point where it’s not accurate anymore.
- If they’re trying to blind you with science, keep your eyes wide open.
Links to other reputable sites
Links should not be to pages asking you to buy something.
Many reputable sites will not link to other pages at all. Some link to trustworthy sites that have been evaluated for accuracy.
Print this guide for your reference
American Heart Association. (2015). Retrieved from http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/
Belluz, J. (2014, Dec 10). Why so many health articles are junk. Vox. Retrieved from http://www.vox.com/2014/12/10/7372921/health-journalism-science
Belluz, J., & Hoffman, S. (2015, March 11). Stop Googling your health questions: Use these sites instead. Vox. Retrieved from http://www.vox.com/2014/9/8/6005999/why-you-should-never-use-dr-google-to-search-for-health-information
Caufield-Noll, C. (2012). Finding reliable health information on the internet: Overview of medlineplus.gov. [Slideshow]. Retrieved from http://www.slideshare.net/JHBMC_CHL/medlineplusoverview?next_slideshow=1
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2014). [Website]. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov
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Flaherty, J. (2014). Spotting bogus dietary advice. Tufts Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.tufts.edu/alumni/magazine/fall2014/discover/dietary_advice.html
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Mayo Clinic. (2015). [Website]. Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org
McCoy, T. (2014, December 19). Half of Dr. Oz’s medical advice is baseless or wrong, study says. The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2014/12/19half-of-dr-ozs-medical-advice-is-baseless-or-wrong-study-says/
Medline Plus. (2015). [Website]. Retrieved from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/
National Cancer Institute. (n.d.). [Website]. Retrieved from http://www.cancer.gov
National Cancer Institute. (2012). Evaluating sources of health information. [Website]. Retrieved from
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. (2013). Finding and evaluating online resources on complementary health approaches. Retrieved from http://nccam.nih.gov/health/webresources
National Institutes of Health. (n.d.). [Website]. Retrieved from http://www.nih.gov
National Library of Medicine. (n.d.). Evaluating internet health information. Retrieved from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/webeval/webeval_start.html
National Network of Libraries of Medicine. (2014). Evaluating health websites. Retrieved from http://nnlm.gov/outreach/consumer/evalsite.html
NHS Choices. (n.d.) [Website]. Retrieved from http://www.nhs.uk/Pages/HomePage.aspx
Patients Like Me. (2015). [Website]. Retrieved from http://www.patientslikeme.com/
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Scholarly Open Access. (2015). [Website]. Retrieved from http://scholarlyoa.com/publishers/
Science-Based Medicine. (2013). [Website]. Retrieved from http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org
Spurious Correlations. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.tylervigen.com/
University of Connecticut Health Center. (n.d.). Evaluating websites for consumer health information. Retrieved from http://library.uchc.edu/departm/hnet/rbevalwebsite.html
US Food and Drug Administration. (2013). How to evaluate health information on the internet. Retrieved from http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/BuyingUsingMedicineSafely/BuyingMedicinesOvertheInternet/ucm202863.htm