What do you suppose are the four most popular categories of Internet traffic? You probably got the obvious ones — news, shopping and porn. But did you guess that health was right there at the top as well? According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, some 93 million adult Americans — that’s 80 percent of adult users — surf the Internet for health research. In one survey targeted to cancer patients, while the majority of respondents said they preferred to get their information from a health-care provider, they admitted that in reality they went online for medical help. Lord knows there’s no shortage of sites, but the quality of information ranges from excellent to downright spurious. Here are some guidelines for judging credibility.
Consider the source. Click the icon on the site that says “about us” to learn who’s providing the information. More often than not, sites have commercial sponsors — like a drug company or product — who may be tilting what’s presented. The sites you can trust are those run by professional organizations like the American College of Cardiology, the federal government, medical schools or universities. (For example, OncoLink.com is a fine cancer information website run by the University of Pennsylvania.) On these authoritative sites, you’ll find peer-reviewed articles submitted by qualified professionals, vetted by other scientists, and reviewed by an editorial board.
Check the date. Advances in medicine happen every day, and not all sites keep their citations current.
Get a second opinion. It’s not a bad idea to cross-reference what you find on one site with info from another. Or, better still, get a referral from your own practitioner. David Nash, chairman of the department of health policy at Jefferson Medical College, suggests asking your doctor what sites he or she recommends. He likes the very popular WebMD.com; it’s thorough and not overly technical, since the writing is geared to the lay public. (Be forewarned that the site is cluttered with distracting ads, and some of the content is sponsored.)
Benjamin Krevsky, a professor of medicine at Temple and associate chief of the GI section, admits to using the Internet himself. A professed computer geek since high school, Krevsky suggests going to sites whose reports have been reviewed by responsible scientists. Three of his favorites are MedlinePlus.gov, a gold mine of reliable health information; Epocrates.com, for the lowdown on every imaginable legal drug; and MayoClinic.com, brought to you by the famed diagnostic and treatment center.
In addition, HealthRatings.org — a joint project of Consumer Reports WebWatch and the Health Improvement Institute — gave excellent ratings to KidsHealth.com, MedicineNet.com and MedScape.com. The latter two are spin-offs of WebMD.
Remember that looking for Web-based medical information is much more serious than restaurant-hunting on Zagat.com. “Don’t treat health surfing like another Google search,” says Nash. And, he adds: “The Web should never be a substitute for seeing your doctor.”