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Evaluating Health Information


Much of the information on this page was gleaned directly from an excellent article by Jane E. Brody titled "On-line Health Care for the Savvy Surfer" in the August 31, 1999 edition (p. F6) of the New York Times. We recommend that you read it in its entirety.

Health issues are a major reason people now log on to the Internet. But chances are that much of the information and advice they glean from the computer screen will be biased, inaccurate and, in some cases, downright dangerous.

As the editors of The Journal of the American Medical Association put it: "When it comes to medical information, the Internet too often resembles a cocktail conversation rather than a tool for effective health care communication and decision making. The problem is not too little information but too much, vast chunks of it incomplete, misleading, or inaccurate."

At the same time, the Internet can be an invaluable source of facts and guidance for people with all kinds of health problems, including rare diseases that have baffled their personal physicians.

When you are evaluating health information on the Internet, use the following guidelines:

  • Check the source of the information. What are the credentials of the person who provides the information? If it's a company, what are they trying to sell you? Reliable information comes most often from leading medical centers, university hospitals and government agencies.
  • Is the information based on reports published in leading medical journals? If all the references are to foreign or obscure publications you never heard of, be suspicious. If there are no references at all, chances are that you are dealing with opinion rather than fact.
  • Try to assess the objectivity and comprehensiveness of the information presented. Remember that anyone can pose as an expert on the Internet.
  • Is the information current?  Jane Brody's article suggests that an online medical site should be updated monthly and should clearly state the date of the update.
  • Be skeptical.  Always check out Internet advice with your own doctor, and don't start taking remedies recommended online without checking with your doctor first. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is!

Finally, please follow the advice in the last paragraph in this excellent article:

"Be very careful about the growing practice of on-line medicine. A doctor who cannot see or examine you physically necessarily lacks vital information about the state of your health, and is totally dependent on what you choose to report. This can easily result in misdiagnosis or improper or even dangerous treatment recommendations. The same caution should apply to ordering drugs on-line. Unless someone is checking you out for potential contraindications or interactions with other drugs you take, the consequences can be disastrous. "