Researching on Computer

The first place to go for reliable health information should be your primary care doctor. But sometimes you’ll want to search online for information about health conditions. How can you tell reliable, accurate information from false or outdated information in the wild west of the internet?

It’s helpful to know which sites are nearly always reliable. These should be your first stop.

Start With Public Health Sites

Federal, state, and local public health agency websites have reliable health information on a wide range of topics. These websites usually have web addresses ending in .gov.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is possibly the most respected public health institution in the world. It’s the first place to search for health recommendations and information about different conditions. It’s easier to find information if you do an internet search using the name of the condition or disease followed by “CDC.”

The National Library of Medicine (NLM) is another federal resource with information on just about any topic. Go directly to the MedlinePlus homepage, which includes a search option at the top. The NLM offers an online tutorial to help you learn to evaluate internet health information.

The NLM is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), another highly reliable source for health information. The NIH includes 27 different institutes focused on different medical topics. They include the National Cancer Institute, the National Institute on Aging, and the National Institute of Mental Health.

Your state health department website also has information about local and state public health issues. These include infectious diseases, environmental health threats, and vaccinations. Most counties or cities also have public health sites with reliable information.

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Hospitals, Medical Societies, and Nonprofits

After public health agencies, reliable sources of health information include hospitals, educational institutions, and nonprofits. Hospitals, such as UPMC, often have detailed, accurate information about a wide range of conditions. It’s helpful to start with your own hospital system or the website of a large major United States hospital system.

Medical societies are professional organizations made up of doctors with specific specialties. These sites often have sections specifically for the general public with reliable information. Here are some of the most helpful:

Nonprofit organizations include a wide range of groups focused on specific health conditions or issues. Most websites ending in .org are nonprofit organizations. Most of these organizations are reliable, but the information found on their websites may require closer examination.

Here are some of the top reliable nonprofit organizations:

Evaluating a Website

What happens if an internet search takes you to an unfamiliar website or an organization you know little about? Here’s how to determine a site’s reliability:

1. What does the web address end in?

  • .gov addresses indicate local, state, or federal government sites and are usually very reliable
  • .edu addresses indicate colleges, universities, and schools. They also are usually very reliable
  • .org addresses include nonprofit groups, as well as some professional societies and research groups
  • .com addresses include businesses (pharmaceutical companies, independent medical practices, and many hospitals)

2. Who wrote the information and who reviewed it?

Many websites will include the author of the information. Is it a doctor or other health professional? A respected health or science journalist? Was the information reviewed by a medical professional with a doctor of medicine (MD) or doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO) degree? Is the information provided by a legitimate hospital or health care institution?

If the page does not name the author or reviewer, look for an “About Us” or “Contact Us” section. These links should tell you more about the creator of the website and its information.

3. How recent is the information?

Most webpages will include the date the information was posted or updated. The most reliable pages have been posted within the last three years.

4. What is the website’s purpose?

Does the website exist for the sole purpose of providing public health information? Does it exist to promote a business? Does it exist to sell products?

Websites that sell products or advertise a business may not be as reliable as others. One way to learn more about the website’s purpose is to look for a mission statement.

5. Be cautious about personal websites and blogs.

While many personal websites and blogs contain accurate information, others contain dangerous misinformation. Carefully research the background of the creator through other internet searches. If the website sells products, you should be especially skeptical.

Here are things to look for on personal websites, blogs, and other sites:

  • Is the information based on facts and evidence?
  • Does the site list or link to research studies or reliable health websites?
  • Does the information on the site match information from reliable health sites?

Red Flags

The following are warning signs a website may be unreliable or contain misinformation:

  • Miracle cures or other information that sounds too good to be true
  • Statements that promise a cure, a fast recovery, or results if you buy the products on the website
  • Information that goes against what you find on reliable health sites
  • Personal stories or opinions that are very different from information found on reliable health websites
  • Many broken links
  • Poorly written content
  • Information that has not been updated in more than three years
  • Pop-ups and other intrusive advertisements that make the information hard to read
  • Sites that ask for personal information, such as your phone number, address, or health information

If you are uncertain about information found on a website, talk to a trusted medical professional.

Sources

Healthy Aging and Physical Disability. Rehabilitation Research and Training Center. University of Washington Seattle. Link

Medline Plus. Evaluating Health Information. National Library of Medicine. August 27, 2020. Link

National Institute on Aging. Online Health Information: Is It Reliable? October 31, 2018. Link

About UPMC

Headquartered in Pittsburgh, UPMC is a world-renowned health care provider and insurer. We operate 40 hospitals and 700 doctors’ offices and outpatient centers, with locations in central and western Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, and internationally. We employ 4,900 physicians, and we are leaders in clinical care, groundbreaking research, and treatment breakthroughs. U.S. News & World Report consistently ranks UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside as one of the nation’s best hospitals in many specialties and ranks UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh on its Honor Roll of America’s Best Children’s Hospitals.