"People have a 50-50 shot at getting good information, and that's obviously concerning," says Joshua Seidman, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Information Therapy in Bethesda, Md., which encourages medical professionals to "prescribe" high-quality information.
Here's the advice of the Medical Library Association and other experts about how to surf for the most accurate, comprehensive and user-friendly health sites.
Consider the source. Who sponsors the site and produces its material? Is it the American Cancer Society or some hobbyist posting from his basement? Click "About" or "About us" on the home page to fine out who sponsors the site. A general rule of thumb is that sites with Web addresses ending with .edu are universities, .com sites are commercial enterprises, .org sites are nonprofits and .gov sites are, of course, the government.
Is the site trying to sell you something? Some .com sites support excellent content, with advertising; some may be posted by a reputable health care provider, such as a hospital. But other sites simply want to grab your attention to pitch products.
Check when the page was last updated, which is often posted at the bottom. As scientific evidence emerges, a new study can contradict an earlier one. Mary L. Ryan, president-elect of the Medical Library Association, says some authors "throw up a site" and then neglect to keep it it current.
Start on solid ground. If you're doing a major search on a topic that's critically important to you, consider getting help from a medical librarian through the Medical Library Association's website. The National Library of Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health, offers advice on surfing for health news.
Talk to your doctor. Don't take what you find on the Internet as gospel - it may be unnecessarily scary, oversimplified or just plain wrong. And don't self-prescribe based on online revelations. Your doctor can put information you find in context.
The Internet has thrown open the doors to a whole new universe of information. And today, more Americans than ever-113 million adults, according to a 2006 study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project-say they've trolled that universe for answers to their health and medical questions.
Most commonly, these online researchers want to learn about a specific condition that affects them or a loved one, about anything from ways to soothe the effects of poison ivy to how recognize stroke symptoms. In some cases, a patient or relative might “go to school on that topic and become enough of an expert to navigate New England Journal of Medicine abstracts,” says Susannah Fox, author of the Pew study.
A big challenge of Web research is dealing with the sheer volume of information—and its wildly uneven quality. Pew’s study shows that most “e-patients” start with search engines like Google or Yahoo, which toss up thousands of websites, ranked according to the appearance of key words. If you google “controlling asthma,” for example, you’ll get the website of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, as well as one called mamashealth.com, whose contact information is a link labeled “e-mail Mama,” with no indication of who “Mama” is.
____ Resources: The above material was taken in part from AARP on their web site http://bulletin.aarp.org/