How to Find Reliable Health Websites and Medical Information Online

A blue stethoscope lies next to a laptop.

The internet has provided the opportunity for anyone to publish information online, and it can be difficult to separate credible information from untrustworthy sources.

In a scientific credibility review, researchers found that nearly three-fourths of the leading health articles shared online were either entirely false or had some portion of misinformation.

Whenever you are scouring the internet, you want to make sure you are obtaining your information from a reliable, unbiased provider. This is especially true in finding health information. Health literacy is important because the wrong diagnosis, suggestion, tip or treatment can be detrimental to the reader.

Finding information about symptoms or identifying health concerns can not only save you from spending unnecessary time and money at the doctor, but it can also lead readers down the wrong path.

This guide to understanding medical misinformation and counteracting its influence can help anyone seeking to better understand medical sources online, someone pursuing a master’s degree in health communication and individuals preparing to enter a leadership position in their organization or community.

The Risks of Misleading Health Information

There are many risks with misleading health information online. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) health information on the internet can be unreliable. With open access to not only peer-reviewed clinical reports and research, but also information about fictitious medical treatments on the internet, it can be difficult to know which information and sources are trustworthy.

Common examples of misleading health information surround popular fad diets and weight loss products because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not highly regulate them.

Repercussions for Consumers

The people most likely to turn to the internet for medical advice and information are also at the greatest risk of suffering repercussions due to trusting unreliable sources. Those who search the internet for health information tend to be individuals with a greater potential need for medical care due to circumstance or health concerns, including:

  • People with chronic health conditions
  • The uninsured
  • Individuals lacking immediate access to health providers

According to Oxford Academic, “The three main ways of accessing online health information are: (i) searching for health information; (ii) participating in support groups; and (iii) interacting with health professionals (Cline and Haynes, 2001).”

It’s these information sources that can pose the greatest risk to people seeking medical advice. One study showed that only one in five sources of online information for major health conditions, including breast cancer and obesity, contained relevant information. Further exacerbating the issues related to incorrect or irrelevant information, this same study also found that often information was incomplete, which could negatively impact overall understanding.

Additionally, there also tends to be a correlation with low literacy and individuals who search for medical information on the internet,, which may impact a reader’s understanding of medical terminology or interpretation of the information found.

Online pharmaceutical promotion can also pose issues for online information seekers. Websites, support groups and online communities can promote medications directly to consumers or through online advertisements. This can lead to additional risks associated with an incomplete understanding of the product, conflicts of interest or even misuse of pharmaceutical products.

Repercussions for Health Professionals

Healthcare professionals face unique risks in the age of medical information being found and consumed online. Patients are encouraged to advocate for themselves with their care providers, but issues can occur when a patient mistakenly believes they have found correct information online that contradicts their own doctor’s advice or diagnosis.

Health professionals have an obligation to provide accurate information or sources of information to their patients, and as such, often must combat false and misleading information. The  AMA Journal of Ethics  states: “…health care professionals have an ethical obligation to correct false or misleading health information, share truthful health information and direct people to reliable sources of health information within their communities and spheres of influence.”

Part of being a health care professional is becoming a patient advocate and  educator; patients rely on doctors, nurses and other members of their care team for accurate information from trustworthy sources. Some may even expect providers to help them find additional information online. Health communication students can specialize in disseminating health information to the public or helping hospitals and other health systems improve patient communication.

Professors and educators need to use credible sources for educating their students, as well. Incorrect information can lead to miseducation, the need for re-education and large potential gaps in abilities and health care knowledge for future professionals.

Health professionals aren’t just those working in hospitals or medical offices. Coaches and those working in athletic leadership positions must also be vigilant about scrutinizing sources and sharing reliable information. Students, families and athletes involved in sports at any level may rely on coaches and other administrators to guide them toward healthy choices. Ultimately, anyone in a position of authority who may be trusted or called upon to share credible health information can benefit from learning to better identify and vet both resources and the conclusions they advocate.

How to Identify Misleading Health Information

To avoid misleading health information, you must first know how to differentiate credible sources from questionable sources. Just because something is promoted by a doctor or famous athlete, doesn’t mean that product does what it claims to, or is even safe — they are often paid promotions. Use the following tips for carefully reviewing credentials:

  • Analyze the source. Review the author and their credentials. If it’s product-based information, check online for studies, reviews, accreditation or other credentials that signal the information or product is credible and safe.
  • Consider the information. If an offer seems too good to be true, it probably is.
  • Question the claims. If a source claims to share a “secret” that health care professionals won’t tell you, be cautious — doctors do not gain money for keeping treatments or new research secret.
  • Look for supporting research. If new information is true, supporting research will be available. It will be published in medical journals and covered by large media outlets. If the information you find is only available from one source, you should be apprehensive.
  • Search for peer-reviewed information in health journals. Peer-reviewed medical information has been analyzed and signed off on by other medical professionals within the same realm.
  • Verify whether human trials have been done. If human trials have not been documented, this should raise a red flag. If human trials recently occurred, consider waiting to learn the long-term results before trying anything.
  • Don’t take titles at face value. If an article title seems like an advertorial or click-bait, be cautious about relying on the information.
  • Utilize information review sites. Rely on sites like Health News Review to parse through poor sources and either verify your findings and limit the research you need to do on your own.

How to Avoid Scams

Some scammers use health misinformation to hook readers with startling information to trick them into buying a treatment, product or service. Scammers may offer free trials, prompts to provide additional information or bombard you with excessive pop-ups. According to the National Health Care Anti-Fraud Association (NHCAA), most health care fraud is committed by a small group of health care providers. Use the following tips to help avoid health information scams:

  • Know common scams. Study the different types of prevalent health scams (e.g. billing for services, suggesting unnecessary treatment, health insurance, etc.). The first step to avoid being scammed is to educate yourself.
  • Protect your medical information. Do not share medical information — treat it like your financial information.
  • Get familiar with your insurance privacy and contact policies. Since health insurance scams are so prevalent, read and understand your policy so you can better recognize spam emails or calls.
  • Avoid ads. If information needs to get to you regarding treatment, medical research, your policy or anything else health-related, you will be contacted directly, not informed via an ad.

Criteria for Evaluating Health Information and Products

It is possible for a good health information source to unintentionally provide bad information. The health industry changes every day, and information that was once relevant or current may no longer be the standard. Developing health literacy helps build knowledge for evaluating health information and products. General criteria to consider include:

  • Who the source is
  • Writer credentials
  • Publisher credentials;
  • When the article was published
  • Where the article sources information from
  • Who is sponsoring the content

Websites

Finding a credible website can seem daunting with the amount of misinformation flooding the web. Consider the following tips for assessing the validity of health information websites:

  • Check the date. One of the easiest ways to eliminate unreliable information is to see if the information is current.
  • Prioritize established/trusted institutions. Look for sources that are known for their credibility (e.g. government agencies, nonprofits and academic organizations).
  • Verify expertise. Ensure the site you reference has relevant credentials for the topic.’
  • Avoid commercial sites. Commercial sites are notorious for trying to sell something, so there are often biases in the writing that promote their product or service over others.

Products

When you search for a product, it can be difficult to get unbiased, non-advertorial opinions of a product. When buying health products and services online, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recommends: :

  1. Know who you’re dealing with. Prior to purchasing a product or service from an organization, do your research. Confirm the physical address and contact information, look at online reviews and avoid non-secure sites.
  2. Consider the source. When searching, aim for .gov, .edu and .org sites. While anyone can post information, these sites are generally more reliable than .com sites.
  3. Only get prescriptions from licensed pharmacies. Use the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP) to look up  licensed pharmacies.
  4. Talk to health care professionals: The best way to avoid misinformation on health care products is to talk to a trusted medical professional.

Nutrition

According to the National Institutes of Health, dietary supplements are not required to be tested for safety or effectiveness before they are advertised. It is important to consider the following when assessing nutritional information:

  • Are they standardized?
  • Does it follow the FDA labeling guide?
  • What claims are being made? (e.g. product will cure, treat, help, etc.)
  • How is it labeled?

Examples of Reliable Health Resources

There are plenty of reputable, reliable resources that readers should be aware of when scouring the web for health-related information, including::

The Legitimacy of Alternative Medicine Websites

Alternative medicine — also known as complementary medicine — refers to any of the various approaches to medicine that are outside of the industry standard for medical care. It is called complementary medicine because it is meant to enhance traditional procedures to improve some facet that may be lacking or have had issues in the past.

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) is dedicated to extensive, rigorous scientific and medical research that supports the development of alternative medicine. Although there are plenty of viable, evidence-based alternative therapies and complementary medicines, there are two main red flags that readers should be wary of on alternative medicine websites:

    1. Research Methods. Be cautious of unfinished explanatory models, unfamiliarity with a complex/individualized treatment, unclear dosage amounts and schedules, or  insufficient evaluation methods.
    2. Organization of Research: Look for publication bias, limited studies and funding available, an array of sponsors or commercial influencers, or if there have been few or no related studies conducted.

Trendy Health Information

Health information trends that center around a new approach to losing weight or a new diet with limited testing are called fad diets. Examples include Whole30, paleo, keto, intermittent fasting and hundreds of others. Sometimes, it can be hard to identify a fad diet from viable health information, so the Mayo Clinic has indicated the following telltale signs of fad diets:

  • Rapid weight loss promise
  • Eliminating  certain foods
  • Strict, rigid rules
  • Calories or carbs are restricted

The truth behind most popular fad diets is that they are unhealthy, and ultimately don’t provide any real guarantees or proof that they are reliable. Since dietary regulation is loosely regulated by the FDC, theoretical methods can seem like viable, new health information even if there haven’t been short- or long-term studies performed on the diet.

Health Information on Social Media and Mobile Apps

Generally, social media and mobile apps should not be your first destination to search for credible health information, but that does not mean  there is never viable information posted on those platforms. Often, social media is used to promote alternative medicine over traditional medical approaches. The NIH recommends asking the following questions for finding and evaluating online resources:

  • Who runs or created the site or app? Can you trust them?
  • What is the site or app promising or offering? Do its claims seem too good to be true?
  • When was its information written or reviewed? Is it up to date?
  • Where does the information come from? Is it based on scientific research?
  • Why does the site or app exist? Is it selling something?

If you share medical information in an app, look into  privacy protocols and app security. You can report misinformation on all types of social media, and there is generally a platform to do so on mobile apps as well. You should be apprehensive when using social media or mobile apps for health information if:

  • You are given a medical diagnosis. Social media and apps cannot replace a medical professional. While these platforms can provide education on aftercare or symptoms you may be having, any that attempt to diagnose should raise a red flag.
  • The platform is doing more than educating you. If the app is doing anything other than educating you, you should raise your guard.
  • You are asked for payment. A health app should be a free resource for information that aids your recovery or instructs you to see a medical professional. It is not a doctor, so there shouldn’t be any hidden fees or requests for payment.

Counteracting Medical Misinformation

According to the American Medical Association (AMA), there are four ways to counteract medical misinformation:

  1. Limit dissemination. High-authority medical journals and health care professionals can help identify misinformation and limit exposure by addressing and disproving falsehoods.
  2. Promote health literacy. If society promotes health care knowledge and provides consumer-facing educational resources, consumers will possess the tools to take medical misinformation with a grain of salt and combat the issue.
  3. Educate and be educated. Health care professionals can improve education by providing adequate insight into medical science, research, innovations, treatments, diseases and any other health care information that needs to be readily available.
  4. Debunk and discredit. When misinformation is identified, health care facilities, the journalism community and individuals  can leverage social media and the internet to disprove information by revealing a lack of credentials, outdated information and more. .

Is the Dissemination of Medical Misinformation Illegal?

Medical misinformation sits in a gray area legally. It is hard to set legal boundaries and repercussions for an industry that is constantly changing and evolving, so by and large, the dissemination of medical misinformation is not illegal. While the FDA is in charge of regulation, consumer health resources and individuals are largely responsible for mitigating the issue.