21 March 2010

When you've got a new ache or pain, what's the first thing you do? Your doctor's office calls to tell you that your cholesterol is too high, where do you turn for advice? You hop on the scale and are horrified to find you're up five pounds. What now?  Chances are you surf the internet for some self diagnosis, drug information, or weight loss tips. You're not alone.  In a 2003 survey of 6369 people, 63% reported using the internet in general. Of those, 64% reported going online for health information. While most people (49.5%) say they want to go to their physician first for health information, only 10.9% actually do. Most (48.6%) go online first.  

The need to find health and medical information fast makes the internet the obvious go-to spot. However we pay a big price for fast access to plenty of information.  Anybody can say anything - and they do. Websites selling health products have a big stake in you believing that their products work. Even on sites that aren't seeking to sell, self-anointed health "experts" often dole out advice that has no scientific basis. Sometimes this advice is harmless, sometimes it's dangerous.

How do you know if the information you're getting online is backed by science? Here are six questions to ask when you go online.

1.       What is the purpose of the site? Chances are slim that the information is solid if the purpose of the website is to sell you a product. Look for sites that end in ".org", ".edu", and ".gov".  These sites are more likely to be for educational purposes only. That does not mean all commercial sites are bad - it's just harder to tell what you're getting with a ".com". Non-profits tend to be more reputable.

2.       Where does the content come from? If it's not from the people who are hosting the site, then where does it come from? Often, universities and medical centers and other organizations have educational websites but they buy the information from a content provider. That's not necessarily a bad thing, if that content provider is reputable. But they should let you know where the information is coming from. The original sources of the information should be cited in the article as well. For instance, if the author is telling you about the results of a research study, that study should be fully cited at the end of the article.

3.       Who developed the site? Who developed the site and what are their qualifications? Can you confirm their credentials? Just having impressive letters after one's name is no guarantee either so take a look at the organization they are with as well.

4.       Is the site easy to navigate? It should be easy to find the information you are looking for.

5.       Is the information up-to-date? The information should have a date on it and should let you know if and when it was updated.

6.       Can you contact them? Does the site provide a place to call or email with comments, questions, or concerns about their site?

Beth Kitchin, MS, RD
Assistant Professor
UAB Department of Nutrition Sciences


Hesse GL, Croyle RT, Arora NK, Rimer BK, Viswanath K. Trust and sources of health information: the impact of the internet and its implications for health care providers: findings from the first Health Information National Trends Survey. Arch Inter Med. 2005;165:2618-24.

Australian Government Initiative: http://www.healthinsite.gov.au/topics/How_to_Assess_Health_Information_Online

The National Cancer Institute: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Information/internet