Tips for Starting your Search for Health Information Online
Online Content can be Helpful and Harmful; Know the Difference
I can appreciate when patients take full advantage of the Internet to search for health information. It can signal to me that they are active participants in their health and want to be involved and engaged in their care. This is a good mindset to have, and one that often fosters open dialogue between patient and primary care provider.
About 72 percent of Internet users say they have looked online for health information within the past year. For adults 65 and older, this number is closer to 21 percent.
We know that older adults face a greater number of health conditions and use prescription drugs and health care services at a higher rate than younger adults. So it’s no surprise that older adults are avid consumers of health information.
We also know that there is plenty of information on the Internet that may be inaccurate or incomplete. And while it may be presented as credible, relying on this information, combined with failure to consult with a medical provider, could endanger your health.
Following are some important suggestions for you to consider before heading out to the Internet in search of health information:
- Start offline, then go online.
If you have concerns about your health, or want to educate yourself about a health condition or prescription drugs, start by asking your primary care provider for recommended resources. They can direct you to trusted resources and websites, or may have printed material in their office to share with you.
- You are unique.
Your health history is like your fingerprint; it’s unique to you. Just because a plan of care worked for one individual with a similar medical condition doesn’t mean it will work for you, and in fact, it could be dangerous. It’s okay to learn from the experiences of others, but use this information to start a conversation with your primary care provider and not as an approved care plan for you.
- Look for credible, authoritative websites.
The Internet makes it easy for nearly anyone to post content, share feedback and offer opinions. This is great for freedom of speech, but can be very problematic for accurate information. Pay close attention to the source of information you are reading. Is the source a reputable, non-biased medical center, research organization or brand? If you can’t tell what is credible versus unreliable then look for subtle clues:
- Watch for frequent misspellings and grammatical errors.
- Out of date information can be especially harmful. Old revision dates on pages or an old copyright date at the bottom of the page are telltale signs of neglect.
- Websites filled with advertisements or that heavily promote a product may not have your best interests in mind.
- A good place to start is with government websites whose web addresses end in .gov, educational institutions that end in .edu, or non-profits that end in .org.
- Keywords are key.
It’s good to start out having an idea of what kind of information you want to read. This will keep your searches more focused. Think about starting with a more specific term, like ‘high blood pressure,’ for example, and then refine your results by adding on with more specific terms, like ‘symptoms,’ ‘diet,’ or ‘causes.’
- Have a productive discussion with your primary care provider.
If you have found information online that looks interesting or useful, share it in a way that promotes healthy conversation with your primary care provider. Asking questions is always okay.
Online health information is in no way meant to substitute for medical advice from a doctor. Educate yourself with quality, credible information. Then on your next office visit share your concerns or thoughts with your primary care provider as part of your normal discussions about your health and wellbeing.