How to evaluate health websites

A recent survey found that 60 percent of adults have gone online at least once in the past year to look up health information. Unfortunately, finding high-quality health websites is a challenge. Several years ago, a review of 79 studies published in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that online health information for consumers is frequently flawed, inaccurate, or biased. Based on my experience, the situation isn’t any better today.

Why do some health websites contain misleading information? One reason is that the group or organization running the site may have a hidden agenda. Drug companies often create consumer demand for expensive new drugs by financing groups that promote awareness of a previously unrecognized health condition, a sales tactic known as “disease mongering.” (For example, Dartmouth Medical School researchers have argued that restless leg syndrome became a disease only when a drug was developed to treat it.) Unfortunately, a study published in 2011 in the American Journal of Public Health found that most health advocacy groups that receive drug-company funding don’t disclose that on their websites.

Another reason that websites may contain misinformation is that some groups willfully disregard scientific evidence to promote certain health beliefs. For example, even though the U.S. Institute of Medicine found in 2004, after an exhaustive review of the medical literature, that there is no relationship between childhood vaccines and autism, it’s easy to find websites that claim otherwise. Similarly, although most researchers have concluded that Morgellons disease—a bizarre skin condition that sufferers believe to be caused by an undiagnosed parasitic infestation—is likely to be a psychiatric delusional disorder, you wouldn’t know it by simply Googling “Morgellons.”

Because advising my patients to make an appointment every time they have a health-related question isn’t a practical solution, I refer them to websites that I trust or that have been certified by an independent, quality rating organization such as the Health on the Net Foundation. This organization’s search engine only retrieves results from websites that have agreed to provide objective, scientifically sound information. One such website—Healthfinder.gov, which is a clearinghouse on a variety of general health topics— links to the latest health headlines, and provides interactive health tools that give personalized advice about screening tests and other preventive health issues. Content on Healthfinder.gov is periodically reviewed by U.S. government health experts to assure its accuracy and consistency with results from the latest scientific studies.

When I want to give patients a handout about the basics of a preventive test or newly diagnosed health condition, I turn to FamilyDoctor.org, a nonprofit website supported by the American Academy of Family Physicians. (Full disclosure: I edit a medical journal that is the source of many of these handouts.)

One such handout advises that patients ask themselves three questions about every health-related website they visit:

1. Where did this information come from?
2. How current is this information?
3. Who is responsible for the content on this website?

As powerful a tool as the Internet can be in giving people access to health information, it is only a starting point. With few exceptions (for example, management of the common cold), patients should never use online information to self-diagnose or treat a medical problem. However, I believe that patients who visit high-quality health websites are usually better-informed and more capable of making complex choices, such as whether or not to get a screening test for cancer. And in my opinion, that’s a good thing.

Kenneth Lin is a family physician who blogs at Common Sense Family Doctor.

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  • rbthe4th2

    My question would be how do you feel about Medscape? Pubmed? If a patient can work through that, would you feel comfortable with it? I find over half my docs DON”T like me doing that.
    Especially when I ended up politely telling a doc that a particular blood test wasn’t indictative of a condition, there was information I had about it being something else.
    I didn’t mind he was wrong. I minded him NOT admitting he wasn’t right and not willing to learn from that.

    • meyati

      My PCP says in a pleasant voice, while his eyes start sparking. “I see that you’ve been researching-good” and throws them on the floor. Reminds me of my childhood doc.

    • Howard C. Berkowitz

      My experience has been that when I present results from primary journals in a structured way, they are accepted. Usually, I accompany them with a written summary. In fairness, I have experience in medical sciences and can present formally.

      • rbthe4th2

        What I do is simply have a list of links to where I found them online or give the citation. Occasionally I will print out a couple, and say here are the studies supporting this theory. I’ve ended up asking if they had other theories & I would investigate them. No answer.
        Once my doc(s) got/get proven wrong, and it was obvious no research was into the problem at all, or they weren’t current on their information, I believe they know they lost credibility and respect. I mean some things are downright obvious when you ask, this is the information I have, can you tell me where I’ve not researched your ‘take’ on this.

  • cbiglow

    Please also advise your patients to visit MedlinePlus. There is an abundant amount of information for patients, and there are tools that will help them to evaluate websites

  • Abbydoodle

    I spent 20 years trying to find out what was wrong and saw at least 100 doctors. It was my dogging research that found a report which ultimately turned out to be an autopsy report –that contained a case history of the female patient that matched mine and gave me a diagnosis–a genetic disorder. Which is why I had been sick all my life. Ignorantly the medical field teaches doctors that this genetic disorder is recognized at birth. The doctors told my mom it was food allergies and she tried to save my life herself using Dr. Spock advise and praying to God. I went through hell up to age 49. Some doctors acused me of being a hypochondriac and psychosomatic. When I learned the real genetic disorder –it was quite serious and for some reason God was keeping me alive. When I met the geneticist he said based on the tests, there was no explanation for me being alive…. I have continued to gather research information from all over the world, link information that no one else has, made several research groups angry because I found links in nonconventional ways and have ended up teaching medical students that went on to save adults. To this day the medical text books mostly teach that this genetic disorder is found at birth and it is very rarely seen in an adult. Yeah right…tell that to the group of us on FB that are alive and fighting to stay that way.

    I become very angry at doctors who don’t like patients that research their problems. To me that is a quite insecure doctor. Several I have found that I know much more than them and wonder what their grade point average was and may they went to an offshore school and bought their medical degree. I know of one in our city that did this and advertises herself as a very special genetic specialist. Yet in 5 minutes of talking with her, I found her depth and limits of medical knowledge within her field –which is quite frightening.

    Because of all my rare conditions I judge doctors very carefully. I love a great and honest doctor. Admit it if you don’t know the answer. Don’t lie to me, I will catch you in a lie. I read scholarly scientific papers and take the CME medical tests for fun and pass every one.

    Right now I have a great medical team. They are knowledgeable and know when they have met their limits with my disorders and diseases. And they will say I don’t know if I ask a complicated question. Those are great doctors. I would recommend them to others with my problems.

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