Family Health: Searching for health advice online? Do it right with these tips

For many people with questions about their health, their first stop is the internet. Nearly 60 percent of adults in the United States have searched online for health information in the last year, and that number is rising.

This is often a good choice. It can help you be informed about your health risks, when to have screenings and how to stay healthy. But there’s also a downside to reading about your health online. For one thing, people who tend to worry about vague symptoms are likely to find that they match a number of frightening conditions – yet may not really indicate any of them.

The other problem with online health information is that it’s often wrong. Asking these questions can help you judge health websites:

• Where does the information come from? Look for an “About Us” page. It should tell you who created and runs the site. Look for a board of directors or advisory panel that includes doctors and other experts, and a mission statement that mentions reliable information and medical research. Good sites will list specific sources for their information, such as the National Institutes of Health. Unreliable sites may use vague terms like “a recent study.”

  • Are they selling something? Many legitimate sites include ads that are clearly labeled, so you can distinguish them from the health information. Be cautious of sites where products are recommended as part of the health advice.
  • Does the site make fantastic claims? One tipoff is the use of exclamation points and terms such as “breakthrough” or “miracle cure.” If the information sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
  • How recent is the information? Many sites include a statement about when the information was last reviewed. Look for sites that are updated frequently.
  • Does the site rely on testimonials? Personal stories can be compelling but they don’t offer proven information. Look for facts that come from research.
  • Do they ask you to become a member or enter personal information? If so, look for a statement about how they will protect your privacy. Make sure they pledge not to share your information with outside organizations.

In general, you should avoid .com sites, which are usually commercial, in favor of .gov, .edu and .org sites. For example, you can find good information from sites sponsored by professional medical organizations, such as:

U.S. government sites such as the National Cancer Institute (cancer.gov) and MedlinePlus (medlineplus.gov) also are good. One of the best health sites is HealthFinder (healthfinder.gov). This site allows you to enter you age and sex to find which screening tests are recommended for you.

When you need answers to health questions quickly, don’t forget about hospital hotlines such as Community Medical Center’s Nurse-On-Call. These services can tell you when you should get help right away, such as with symptoms that may indicate a heart attack or stroke.

Regardless of the website you use, you should always check with your doctor to confirm the information you find. He or she knows your health history and risks, and can make sure you’re on the right track. If you schedule a doctor visit, the information you find online can help you ask questions and be an informed patient.