| Tue, Feb 26, 2013 @ 09:00 AM

Online Medical and Health Information: Reader Beware

Posted by Medicare Made Clear

Online Medicare and Health information BewareWhat’s the first thing you do when you or a loved one receives a medical diagnosis? For many, the answer is to go online.

The internet is a fathomless storehouse of information, ideas and opinions. That’s great. But when you’re dealing with your health, or the health of someone you love, make sure you know what you’re getting.

Finding good health information online is kind of like finding a good doctor or hospital. You have to know what to look for, and you have to know the right questions to ask.

Who Sponsors the Site and Why?

Anyone can put up a health-related website. It’s important to get your information from a reliable source. How can you tell?

You can tell a lot from a website’s address, or “url.” The address of the site you’re on appears in an area at the very top of your browser. The end of the address helps you know the kind of organization that sponsors the site. For example:

  • “.gov” identifies a government agency
  • “.edu” identifies an educational institution
  • “.org” identifies professional and nonprofit organizations such as advocacy or research groups
  • “.com” identifies commercial entities such as businesses, pharmaceutical companies, some hospitals and clinics, etc.

In general, the main purpose of government, educational and professional, nonprofit organization websites is to inform. The sites may also be used for fundraising or to attract students and employees. They are not, for the most part, trying to sell you something.

Commercial sites often have a different purpose, which is to sell something. That doesn’t mean the information you may find there is unreliable. Nor can you automatically believe the information you get from a non-commercial site without question. So what are you to do?

Where Does the Content Come From?

Reliable sites provide scientifically based medical and health information, not opinion. You want to look for material that’s written by qualified authorities with expertise in the subject matter. It’s important that author affiliations and financial interests in the content, if any, are made clear. In addition, source material should be referenced.

The “About Us” section of many health and medical websites identifies who is responsible for the content. Often there is a named editorial board made up of recognized experts in the field that writes or reviews articles. This helps ensure that the information is based on sound scientific evidence.

Be careful about online testimonials. They may be helpful, but it’s best to regard medical advice based on personal experience with caution. What works for one person may or may not work for another. Look for other sources that support and verify information you find online.

When Was it Written or Reviewed?

Medical research is ever expanding. There are new discoveries every day that can make a difference in someone’s life. Take a moment to make sure that you’re reading current and accurate information.

Most websites and many online articles are time and date stamped, showing when they were last updated. This information is usually displayed at the bottom of the page or the end of the article. Older information isn’t necessarily useless. But it’s important to know whether what you’re reading reflects the latest research findings or treatments.

A Final Note

Government websites are a good place to start your health-related searches. Educational institution sites, especially prominent medical schools, are also good bets. Websites sponsored by reputable nonprofit organizations, such as the American Cancer Society or the American Heart Association, are generally trustworthy as well.

Common sense and good judgment go a long way when evaluating online health information. Stop and think before acting on any health information you find online. And, importantly, talk with your doctor. Online health information is no substitute for expert medical advice from someone who knows you and your unique situation.

For more information, contact the Medicare helpline 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 1-800-MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227), TTY 1-877-486-2048. If you have questions about Medicare Made Clear, call 1-877-619-5582, TTY 711, 8 a.m. – 8 p.m. local time, seven days a week.


Medicare.gov: Visit the official U.S. government site for Medicare.

NIHSeniorHealth.gov: Get health information for older adults from the National Institute on Aging and the National Library of Medicine.

MedlinePlus.gov: Visit the National Library of Medicine’s Medline Plus for dependable information on more than 700 health-related topics.

Y0066_130201_085748 CMS Accepted