In fact, 72 percent of Internet users report searching for health information online, according to a study by the Pew Research Center.
Of course, the Internet can be a dangerous place for one’s peace of mind, and inaccurate and biased information abounds. That’s why it’s always best to consult your doctor about any health concerns. If you’re going to do additional research online, make sure you’re using smart strategies to ferret out facts from fluff.
Michael Venner, senior academic librarian with the Ebling Library in UW-Madison’s School of Medicine and Public Health, shares these tips:
Check the Source
Websites that end in .gov or .edu are usually the most trustworthy, and .org websites are also usually reliable. Some websites, such as heart.org, the website of the American Heart Association, have an icon at the bottom of the homepage that notes that the website complies with the Health on the Net Foundation’s standards for trustworthy content. Web page footers on consumer health websites might also note when a page was last reviewed and by whom.
Watch for Hyperbole
“If it sounds too good to be true, it is,” Venner says. A website that makes big promises, appears to be selling something or has ads is usually not a reliable source for health information. Be wary of .com and .net websites that claim to be run by individual doctors; even if that’s true, you’ll want to vet the source to make sure the author is reputable and not just trying to sell a product.
Much of the information on general health websites is written for a sixth-grade reading level, so readers who want to go beyond the basics might be interested in peer-reviewed medical journals instead. These journals can be helpful if you’re considering different treatment options and want more in-depth information on outcomes or if you want to know more about the long-term risks of a medication. But keep in mind that medical literature doesn’t always give easy answers.
“So much of medicine is gray; there’s no black-and-white answer on a lot of questions. I think that’s the hardest thing for consumers to understand,” Venner says.
Take Advantage of Free Resources
Many people aren’t aware that the Ebling Library is open to the public, and the library’s staff can help you search for the latest medical research. You can stop in, call, email or use online chat to get a librarian’s assistance. The library’s website also features a special section on consumer health that includes links to the best free health databases and other resources. Two of Venner’s favorite sources include PubMed, which is the largest health sciences database in the world, and MedlinePlus, which features consumer-friendly health information. Both sites are run by the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
BadgerLink is another resource for Wisconsin residents. By using your local library card, you can access many health information sources, including links to full journal articles, for free. “Even if you’re in a rural part of Wisconsin, you can log in right from your living room or your home office. It’s great,” Venner says. If you prefer a librarian’s help and aren’t close to Ebling, your community library can be another terrific resource.
Refine Your Search
“People are used to Google, where you can just type a question,” Venner says. “But our databases need a specific format if you want to get the best results.” You can use parentheses and “OR” with synonyms if you want to expand your search. For example: (cardiac OR heart). Using quote marks around a group of words (such as “attention deficit disorder”) will search for those words together instead of the individual words. Using “AND” between two or more search terms will help you find only the articles that contain both of your search terms. “Using synonyms will increase your search results, and using ‘AND’ will decrease your results,” Venner explains. “You may have to try different things.”
Not sure where to start or need help with a specific question? Contact an Ebling librarian. But remember that a librarian can’t dispense medical advice. “I can never answer a health question for you; all I can do is show you the literature,” Venner says. “You always have to consult with your doctor.”