How to Find the Best Health Information Online

March 27, 2015  
Filed under Health & Wellness

By Alan Lampson

If you’re like most Americans, you’ve used the Internet to look for health information or to try to diagnose a health problem, and it’s easy to understand why. In modern health care, many conditions have multiple treatment options, so there are a lot of decisions that need to be made. And if you’re like most patients, you want to be involved in making those decisions. Fortunately, the Internet is a convenient, low-cost and confidential way to be an amateur medical researcher, which can help us feel better equipped to partner with our providers in making the best possible choices.
But determining which of the thousands of health care sites can be trusted is a daunting task – here are some tips to help you get started.
First, simply looking at the website address can tell you a lot. If you see “.com,” that means the information is coming from commercial companies that are attempting to sell you a product or service. Look carefully to make sure you aren’t clicking on advertisements that are typically intermixed with more legitimate content.
Other website sponsors include health care organizations such as hospitals and organizations that act as advocates for specific diseases, for example the Alzheimer’s’ Association or the American Cancer Society. These web addresses ends in “.org.” Lastly, there are websites sponsored by local, state or federal government agencies that end in “.gov.”
Regardless of the source, there are several key points to keep in mind when evaluating a website:
Who runs the website?
Who pays for the website?
What is the website’s purpose?
What is the original source of the website’s information?
How does the website document the evidence supporting its information?
Who reviewed the information before the owner posted it on the website?
How current is the information on the website?
How does the website owner link to other sites?
What information about users does the website collect and why?
How does the website manage interactions with users?
It is not always possible to answer all the above questions when you are viewing a website. However, if you use sites known to be reliable, accurate and easy to understand, you have a better chance of finding the information you need.
Government Websites
There are several very good U.S. government websites that are authoritative and up to date. One of these is designed specifically for consumers, MedlinePlus – http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/. Beyond all of the information you’d expect from a comprehensive site, you can learn about herbs and supplements and even watch videos of surgeries.
Other helpful sites
The University of Vermont Medical Center Healthwise Online Health Library: This website is useful for finding general health information.
https://www.uvmhealth.org/medcenter/Pages/Wellness-Resources/Online-Tools-and-Information.aspx
NIHSeniorHealth: This website has topics of particular interest to seniors.
http://www.healthfinder.gov/
Vermont Physician Profiles: Information about physicians from the state licensing board.
http://healthvermont.gov/hc/med_board/profiles.aspx
ClinicalTrials.gov: This website is for locating information on clinical trials and can be searched by disease, treatment or trial location.
http://clinicaltrials.gov/ct/gui/
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine: Look here for clinical studies of complementary and alternative medicine.
https://nccih.nih.gov/
Office of Dietary Supplements, National Institutes of Health: This website has information on the purity and effectiveness of dietary supplements.
http://ods.od.nih.gov/

Remember, you should never try to diagnose your own illness. The information you find on the Internet can be a starting point for a discussion with your health care provider. Because appointments are usually pretty brief, it is best to prepare a list of questions ahead of time.
The  Internet can be a great source for health information, but you need to know where to look. Use sites that are recommended by reputable sources and always keep in mind the who, what, where and why of any website.
If you need help finding health information, you can contact the staff at the Frymoyer Community Health Resource Center at the University of Vermont Medical Center at 847-8821 or e-mail resourcecenter@UVMHealth.org. Its services are free.

Alan Lampson is a Level II Consumer Health Information Specialist and the Lead at the Frymoyer Community Health Resource Center at the University of Vermont Medical Center.

 

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