Is Online Medical Advice Trustworthy?

Searching the Internet for medical advice can be helpful but it can also leave you with information overload. How do you differentiate between the junk and the reliable advice?

There are literally thousands of medical websites. Some are legitimate providing reliable information while others have outdated information. Health care is also big business and many online medical sites are more focused on generating profit. It can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between business and information. The search browsers you use, like google, do not know if information is false, true or profit based.

You may find health agencies and organizations that are not well-know. As a general rule, start with medical websites sponsored by Federal Government agencies. Large professional organizations and well-known medical schools are also good sources of medical information. You can find out more about the websites by visiting the ‘About Us’ section. If this section is missing, move on to another website. Use the following guidelines to help determine the source of their information.


Who Is Funding The Website?

Websites cost time and money to create and maintain. Where is the money coming from? The website address can be helpful in determining the source. The following URL extensions can provide some useful information:

  • .gov – government agency
  • .edu – educational institution, like a college or university
  • .org – nonprofit organizations (professional groups, research, medical, or advocacy groups)
  • .com – commercial websites (such as pharmaceutical companies, hospitals or businesses). Check these sites carefully for bias and conflict of interest.
  • Medical blogs or chat rooms can be useful to connect with others who share your health issues but remember that these people are not always experts. These sites are typically not reviewed or regulated. 

What is their policy about linking to other sites. Be wary of sites that will link to other sites that asks for pays for a link of if the linked site sells products. Others will only link to sites that meet certain strict criteria. The website should have information on their linking policy. If their linking policy isn’t strict, review the linked sites as you would any other medical site.

Read reviews for the site if they are linked to social media, such as Twitter or Facebook. You may also find discussions about the site on social media. If the site has received a star rating, check that the sample size is large. If there are hundreds of reviews, you can feel more comfortable with the star rating. Be wary of a site if you can’t leave your personal comments and the only comments you see on their site are positive.


Who Is The Author?

A reputable article should have the author identified as well as their expertise and credentials. Be aware of a word-maze of letters after a name. This is a warning sign that they are marketing gimmicks rather than an accurate portrayal of their qualifications. Qualified health professionals will always put their highest academic credential, followed by specialized certifications. What organization do they work for or belong to? Does the contributor have any financial stake in the website. The website should inform you how and when it was reviewed.

Information should be provided so you can contact the authors such as email address, phone number or mailing address. This contact information should be listed after an article or on the ‘About Us’ or ‘Contact Us’ page.

Testimonials can be fine but everyone experiences health issues differently. Make sure the website has strong scientific evidence cited and always read the article critically and with objectivity.

Remember to always check with a health professional and never take online advice as your only solution. Consider sharing the online information you are reviewing with your physician. Your health care provider can also recommend websites from recognized health organizations.

How Up-to-date Is The Information?

Check each page you are viewing for a date. This date will reflect how up-to-date the information is. You want to be reviewing the most current, evidence-based information. The content should be no more than 2 to 3 years old. When was the site created and why? Is the website more focused on selling products or is the purpose of the site to inform? Opinion pieces aren’t good enough.

Content is always more reliable if it is based on scientific studies. The research should be available for you to read and should link to a reputable medical journal published within the last five years. Look for professional journals as references such as the ‘Journal of the American Medical Association’ or the ‘New England Journal of Medicine’.

Some websites will proclaim products that will cure different illnesses. Any health advice that suggests all your ailments can be cured with one treatment or supplement is not legitimate and cannot be trusted. Watch out for buzzwords like ‘miraculous’, ‘groundbreaking’, ‘remarkable studies’, ‘clinically proven’ or ‘doctor recommended’. A money-back guarantee does not mean that something works. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.


Is Your Privacy Protected?

The website’s privacy policy is usually at the bottom of the page or on a page titled ‘Our Policies’. If the website uses ‘cookies’ your information may not be private. Before sharing your personal information, find out how the website will use the information. If you aren’t comfortable with sharing, disable cookies through your internet browser settings.

Many commercial sites sell their data about their visitors to other companies. Data they sell could include information about women over 50, or shared zip code data. If a site is asking to become a member or fill out a form, beware of the purpose of the data. You should be able to access educational content without having to provide personal information.

If you are going to share personal information, visit websites that have an “s” after “http” in the start of their website address (https://). Only enter your personal information such as SSN or health insurance information on these secured websites. You can also give this information over the phone instead of through the website.


Are Medical Apps Safe?

Mobile medical apps are downloaded from an app store depending on your device. The iPhone has the ‘apple store’, the ‘google store’ for android as well as others. These apps can help track your eating habits, physical activity, test results, and other information such as blood pressure. They can count calories, monitor your heart rate and manage insulin doses for diabetics. 

Practice due diligence to find out who made the app and their credentials. Many claim certain health benefits but may not have been tested and evaluated by healthcare professionals. Check that the app is reputable, has periodic updates and no bugs.

When entering personal information, make sure it’s relevant to the app. Remember you are entering information on a third-party site and not through your physician’s online health portal.


It’s important to not make decisions on your own based on internet research. Any advice that encourages you to go against the advice of your physician can be potentially dangerous. It is appropriate to get a second opinion, or discuss alternatives, but it is medically unsound to suggest someone go against a treatment plan without knowing why a doctor made specific recommendations. 

The more you read, the more you will gain perspective on your health issues. Education is empowerment but do not diagnose or treat yourself with online information. Bring this information to your physician so you can have an open dialogue about your health care plan.

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