Q: There are so many medical/health websites, resources, blogs, etc. out there on the Internet. For example, just Google, "help with sleep"—more than 33,000 pages show up! Are there guidelines fo r those not in the medical field with regards to assessing the quality of the website? For example, should they all be affiliated with a medical university or medical organization?
Confused by Dot-Com Docs in Boston, MA
A: It seems that most of us should be asking this question, as more than three-quarters of Internet users have searched for health information online. (In addition, a growing number of us are turning to our cell phones to query mobile web browsers about medical issues and use dedicated health applications.)
Whether you’re searching the Internet or an app for advice on sleep or are just trying to understand your child’s health conditions better, remember that the ‘net is just a tool to access information: It’s a great place to begin your research, but shouldn’t be the final word in healthcare—a trained medical professional can help you assess what you learn online.
Keep these three tips in mind when evaluating online health sources:
- Consider the ‘Rules of Media Literacy.’ These are a series of questions you should ask yourself when looking not just at medical websites, but any media outlet—magazine or newspaper articles, radio or TV stories, etc. The questions are intended to help you think critically about the messages presented.
• Who is the author of this message, and what is its purpose?
• What techniques are used to attract your attention?
• What lifestyles, values, and points of view are represented?
• How might different people interpret the message differently?
• What is omitted from this message?
(This tutorial on evaluating medical resources from the National Library of Medicine presents other great points to consider.)
- Ask yourself: What is this website trying to sell? When you take sleep advice from a site that peddles medications or mattresses, it’s likely skewed toward convincing you that these products will solve your problem. You don’t have to always discredit the advice on commercial sites, but do consider them in light of their being primarily marketing tools. Also, question non-commerce sites with repeated advertisements for the same product. The advantage of going to the website of a medical school or hospital, for example, is that those institutions are selling their reputations as repositories of up-to-date, fact- and evidence-based health information.
- Visit multiple websites; compare advice. It’s a good sign when you see similarities among the health recommendations at multiple sites—this will be true on medical school and professional organization sites. Bookmark the sites that communicate the way you like best and go there first the next time you have a health question.
Our CMCH research blog and the Medical Library Association’s User’s Guide both have more advice on finding and evaluating reputable medical sources online. Additionally, here are two resources written in Spanish: Salud en la Web: cómo encontrar información confiable and Guía de MedlinePlus para una búsqueda saludable en Internet
Enjoy your media and use them wisely,