Helping patients find online health information

One to One

The sheer volume of online health-related information is overwhelming. To sort through the unreliable health information posted online, patients need to understand where the information is coming from, how current the information is, and who maintains the website.

Evaluating online health information

Patients must be skeptical of all health information posted online until they have thoroughly assessed the source. First, patients should determine sponsorship to help evaluate if the site is respected and dependable. The website address itself will provide additional information regarding the nature of the site and its sponsor. For example, URLs that end in “.gov” (government agencies), “.edu” (educational institutions), or “.org” (professional organizations) are generally more reliable than “.com” ones, which are often hosted by entities whose primary interest is selling a product or service.

Next, patients should assess the currency of the information by looking for the last revision date, usually located at the bottom of the page. Caution patients to avoid older information, as new products are marketed and ideas change about preferred treatment options, diagnostic tools, and medications.

Other information patients should look for include documentation (e.g., are reliable sources listed, such as peer-reviewed journals); peer review and credentials of reviewers (e.g., MD, PharmD); contact information for additional information; and collection of personal information on the site and what will be done with it. Some sites require patients to register, so caution them to understand what the site plans on doing with their personal data.

Websites to recommend

Useful websites for patients looking for information include the following:

Proactive organizations

A number of health plans and medical groups recognize that patients are looking for quick and easy access to reliable health information online and have expanded their own websites to include such information and other interactive tools. Two examples are Kaiser Permanente and Harvard Pilgrim Health Care.

Kaiser offers its members in-depth health information and the ability to refill prescriptions, make appointments, learn about health classes, and get personalized health information from a clinician. Patients also have the ability to research health conditions, take personal risk assessments, and join online health discussions. Harvard Pilgrim Health Care has a similar model where patients can find a specific doctor and learn about disease management for specific conditions.

The benefits of these types of websites for patients include improved quality of care, improved information-seeking ability, and reduced emotional distress. Encourage patients to see whether their health plan or medical group has a website that they can use to access reliable and customized health information.

Take-home points

FDA developed a quick checklist for patients to ensure that the health information they are reading online is accurate. The following points provide a useful summary for counseling patients about online health information:

  • Can you easily see who sponsors the site?
  • Is the sponsor a government agency, a medical school, or a reliable health-related organization?
  • Is there contact information?
  • Can you tell when the information was written?
  • Is your privacy protected?
  • Does the website make claims that seem too good to be true? Are quick, miraculous cures promised?

Once patients access information, encourage them to discuss the data with a health professional before making any health-related decisions.