How to use online health information

Many websites are packed with pertinent health information’but many others are untrustworthy. Here’s how to tell the difference

How to use online health information

When you spot a rash on your arm, where do you go to find information about it? If you’re like most people, your first stop is probably your computer and not your doctor. According to a survey conducted by a joint research team from the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University, 86 percent of people say they use the Internet regularly as a source for health information.

"People rely on the Internet a lot, more so than their doctors," says Katherine Wisener, a researcher with UBC’s e-Health Strategy office and part of the team that conducted the survey.

However, the researchers also found that many people don’t evaluate the quality of the websites they’re using as sources. Here’s how to safely and effectively use the Internet to find reliable health information.

Use the right search tool

Search tools compile informations in different ways.
Google and Bing are search engines that use a computer program to search the Internet for websites and rank them on a results page. Remember that these programs have only limited abilities to assess the quality of websites they rank first in search results. Also consider that in Google, for instance, companies can pay to have their site appear at the top or on the side of a results page as the "Sponsored Links."

Web directories, such as Yahoo Directory, are organized by people who can assess the quality of sites they rank on results pages. However, these tools do not search everything on the Internet the way that search engines do. On Yahoo Directory, companies can pay to be featured at the top and side column of results pages as the "Sponsored results."

Metasearch tools, such as, search several Internet search engines, including Google, Yahoo and Bing, at the same time to compile a list of relevant sites on one results page. Metasearch tools will deliver about 10 percent of each search engine’s results.

Check the URL

To begin evaluating a website, check out its domain name (the letters after the "dot"). “The end of the URL address can give you a big clue as to what the purpose of the website is,” says Wisener. Here’s what some of them mean:

‘ A website ending in .ca is Canadian
‘ .com may indicate a commercial or for-profit site
‘ .gov indicates a site controlled by the U.S. government
‘ means you’re looking at a Canadian federal government website
‘ .org may indicate the website of a not-for-profit organization

Ask yourself critical questions

Domain names alone can’t tell you whether or not a website is a legitimate source of information. To further assess a site, ask yourself the following questions:

Who created the site?
Anyone can build a website that looks legitimate, so it’s important to seek out information on a site’s creator. Sites that are edited and monitored by major health centres, university faculties or government ministries are the most reliable.

If it’s not immediately clear who created a website, try clicking on the "About Us" section that can sometimes be found at the top or bottom of the home page.

Why was the website created?
"If it’s a .com website describing a product that will solve all your problems, then you want to be careful," cautions Wisener. Don’t mistake a site meant to sell you cures or solutions for an authoritative source of medical information. Check with your doctor before purchasing any health products online.

How is the content reviewed?
Sites that can be considered legitimate sources will often list their quality guidelines for the health information they post. Look for these guidelines in the "About Us" section to ensure the information you’re reading has been reviewed by experts.

How often is the site updated?
"Medical information changes very quickly and it’s important to know that you’re getting the latest research in treatment options," says Wisener. Look for specific dates that tell you when a page was last updated.

Does the website feel legitimate to you?
You’re no stranger to the Internet’if your instincts tell you a site seems unreliable, it’s best to navigate to another source.

Don’t self-diagnose

It’s tempting to use online health information to figure out what’s ailing you. But self-diagnosis is never a good idea, no matter how legitimate the source of your information might be. Only a healthcare provider can properly assess all your symptoms and prescribe the treatment that’s best for you. Think of Internet research as a tool to help you speak to your physician about your concerns. "Bring the information you find to your doctor so you can go over it with them," says Wisener.

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