Beyond Dr. Google

Is the internet helping you find the right information for better health or providing you with bad advice? You may not realize it, but the answer is both. So how can you tell the difference?

Health continues to be one of the top topics people search for on the internet. In fact, the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that at least 80 per cent of Americans look for health information online. There are many benefits to having this content available, such as better education and awareness about diseases, finding new research and treatments, and better communication with doctors.

So what’s the problem? Studies over the past decade have found that a lot of online health content isn’t up to par in terms of quality and correctness. More recently, the Pew Internet project found that 75 per cent of people fail to check up on the health-related information they find. In other words, they’re ignoring crucial checks like how recently the content was published and whether the source is reliable.

Where can you find the best advice, and how can you tell if a source is credible? We’ve got the answers.

Start with reliable sources

Academics and media literacy experts know there’s a certain pecking order when it comes to finding reliable content in any field. The reason: it’s all about who is accountable for the information — how well it’s researched, written, reviewed and maintained. Here are some reliable websites to consider:

Governments: Health information is available at the federal, provincial and municipal level, depending on what content you need. For instance, try federal sites like Health Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (US), and NHS Choices (UK) for general health, travel health and popular topics, and turn to provincial and municipal websites for health care programs and coverage. (For a complete list of federal and provincial government websites, click here).

Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs): NGOs like the World Health Organization have pages dedicated to health topics of concern around the world and publications with the latest information and statistics. (The NGO Forum for Health has a list of its members here).

One NGO, the Health on the Net Foundation, is dedicated to helping people find credible information online. Its MedHunt search tool directs users to sites that have been vetted by members of the foundation.

Academia: Reputations are built and destroyed based on latest research — and the quality and correctness of the findings. University websites, online peer-reviewed journals and newsletters have to be good. Consider subscribing to newsletters like Harvard Health or Johns Hopkins Health Alerts to keep up with the latest information.

You’ll likely need a subscription to read academic journals, but chances are your local community or university library has access.

Medical organizations: For general information start with the Canadian Medical Association or American Medical Association. For specifics, try looking for organizations based on area of expertise. Many associations such as the Canadian Association of Optometrists or Dieticians of Canada have educational sections for the public. (The CMA has a full list here).

Non-profits: Organizations like the Lung Association, Canadian Cancer Society, and Heart and Stroke Foundation have condition-specific advice such as symptoms, diagnosis and treatment, but also the latest research, survival stories and support. The organizations are also responsible for education and advocacy, and are great places to start if you’re looking for volunteer opportunities. (For a list of associations and other patient information sites, click here).

Non-profit practices like the Mayo Clinic have a wealth of information including newsletters, blogs and expert answers to questions. The site also has a detailed First Aid Guide.

Alternative medicine: Finding information about alternative medicine can be tricky because a lot of it comes from suppliers, not doctors. For evidence-based information, try the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, MedlinePlus, Health Canada: Natural Health Products or

Other tools worth a look

So are official sites the only way to go? Chances are you rely on your friends and family for advice in addition to your doctor (though you may consider the advice a little differently). You can get this balanced, supplemented information from sources like:

List-serves and communities: The internet allows people to connect with others who have the same conditions and concerns. These resources can be a valuable source of information and support, and let you “compare notes” with others. There have even been cases of people hearing about a new treatment online that their doctors hadn’t yet heard of.

And these sources aren’t just for people who have specific conditions. There’s support for family, friends and caregivers as well.

Magazines, newspapers and publications: You can’t watch all of the journals, research preventative measures and keep up with all the breakthroughs — but that’s the jobs of journalists, researchers and writers. Media publications can provide a window into what’s new, and refer you to expert sources for more information.

Personal websites and blogs: Many people will tell “their story” online, and there are many reputable and knowledgeable bloggers out there. When in doubt, look for references through credible communities and media sources.

How to test for quality

There’s a lot of good information out there, but there are also a lot of scams, errors and misinformation — so how can you tell the good advice from the bad?

Look for accountability. Ask yourself this question: Who is going to get in trouble if this information turns out to be wrong? For instance, publications, organizations and governments have a review process to ensure the information is objective and correct. Blogs and online communities may be policed by members instead. Any website where you can’t identify the writer (screen names don’t count) or the company could be trouble.

Check qualifications. Who is giving the advice? If someone is presenting his or herself as a medical professional, it doesn’t hurt to check up on qualifications with the regulatory body or association (like the College of Physicians, etc). Beware of fake credentials and stock photographs.

Trace the research. The source of the data should be transparent, whether it’s a media report, journal article or press release. Sources may be cited in the body of the article, or in a “references” or “sources” section at the end.

Check the date. Medical information changes quickly, and there’s a difference between stumbling upon an archived article and finding a website that’s being neglected. The “published on”, “updated on”, or copyright dates can give you a good indication of how current the content is. If no new information has been posted within a reasonable timeframe, then the website likely isn’t getting the attention it needs.

Consider the source. There are a lot of voices in the online conversation, but they don’t necessarily present an unbiased viewpoint. For example, information on a pharmaceutical company website will promote its offerings — so you may want to look to an additional source for an alternate point of view. Some natural health product websites vilify traditional medicine (or vice versa), and some reviewers may have an “axe to grind”.

Trust, but verify. Crucial information should be checked with other sources — but make sure those sources aren’t connected or copying-and-pasting one another’s content. This step is especially important with user-generated and user-edited sites like Wikipedia.

Understand search rankings. If your search engine is the first stop for information, you should be aware that the top results aren’t necessarily there because of their accuracy or credibility — factors like search engine optimization (SEO), page rank and popularity are also at work. In short, the top choices might not be the best quality or the most accurate. You may want to dig deeper into those pages of results.

Don’t jump to conclusions. Another issue with search engines is that the number of results is no indication of how common or rare the condition or symptom is. (A search engine can’t indicate that your puffy eyes are likely from allergies, not botulism). A recent study by Microsoft Research found that researching symptoms via a search engine can lead people to believe that their condition is worse than it actually is because they’re only looking at the top results. Essentially, web searches for common symptoms often escalated to an investigation of more rare and serious conditions — causing needless anxiety for searchers.

For a complete list of questions and checks, see Teacher Tap’s Evaluating Internet Resources.

Ultimately, the most important thing to remember about health information online is that the content is not intended to replace medical advice from a doctor. Undoubtedly the internet is useful for being more informed about our health, but its anyone-can-publish nature means we need to be careful with the sources we use and the advice we follow.

Microsoft Research
Pew Internet and Life Project