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Health online: A guide to reliable medical information on the Internet

No doubt one of your friends, colleagues or relatives has shared some important, maybe even revolutionary, health advice he or she discovered while surfing the Web—but was the advice truly sound or merely medical mumbo jumbo?

While it’s true the Internet offers us easy access to a wealth of health information, unfortunately not all of it is trustworthy. Remember, after all, that anyone with computer know-how can start his or her own Web site. No permission is necessary—and neither is any basic knowledge.

That said, before you log on to learn about your health, protect yourself with a generous dose of skepticism. Then use these clues to help you weed out the unreliable sites from the credible ones.

Does the health site feature advertising? If so, you can’t be sure how the advertising is influencing the site’s content.

Does the health site make claims that seem too good to be true? Look for words like “best,” “top,” “fast,” “cure-all” and so on. Anything that sounds outrageous is likely to be just that.

Does the health site promote products? Beware of “infomercial” sites designed to pitch miracle cures and other “amazing” health tonics.

Does the information seem one-sided? If the health site is not presenting information in a balanced, objective manner, be skeptical. Medicine is not an exact science, and whatever you read on the Web should reflect that.

Is the sponsoring institution clearly identifiable? It should be easy to determine the sponsor of the site and the qualifications of its sources. Have you ever heard of the sponsoring organization or individual? Are you familiar with its reputation?

Is the information attributed to a source? Beware of information that does not cite a medical journal, a specific author, a government institution or a qualified medical editorial board.

Is the information current? Check the bottom of a Web page for dates—often you’ll find when the material was written or last updated.

Is the information presented clearly? Good patient Web sites are written with you, the layperson, in mind. They don’t use a lot of unnecessary medical terms to impress or confuse you. Ask your doctor to interpret information intended for health professionals if you think it may apply to you. Likewise, discuss any health advice you find on the Web with your healthcare provider before putting it to personal use.

There’s no question that the Internet offers us a unique chance to be the best-informed healthcare consumers of all time. Used wisely, it can help us take charge of our well-being and strengthen the relationship we have with our doctors and other healthcare providers. So go ahead, explore your healthcare options online—just be savvy as you surf!