It's Probably Not Cancer: Online Health Information Is Not Always Reliable

Doctors are still better than services like Google and WebMD at diagnosing and treating patients

It's Probably Not Cancer: Online Health Information Is Not Always Reliable
Image: Pixabay
March 30, 2017

Modern technology has put a wealth of information of all types at our fingertips, so it's little wonder that we turn to Google at the first sign of a problem. Unfortunately, the diagnoses suggested by online services like search engines and WebMD are often inaccurate, which can lead patients to panic.

Common Online Sources for Health Information

Some sites are better than others. Surprisingly, The Guardian found that Wikipedia's medical information is often—though not always—substantiated by peer-reviewed literature, especially for kidney disease and mental health problems. (It recommends looking elsewhere for medication information, digestive and liver diseases, and children's ear, nose, and throat problems.)

According to a study published in medical journal The BMJ, however, users of online symptom-checking websites like WebMD often receive incorrect diagnoses. The 23 sites tested by the researchers gave the correct diagnosis in the first three suggested only 51 percent of the time. That number rose only slightly—to 58 percent—for listing the correct diagnosis somewhere among the first 20 suggested.

Questions to Ask Before Trusting a Website

You're likely to run across many different sites when searching online for health information, many of which are not well known. Ask these questions from the National Institute on Aging (NIA) about websites before you trust the information they provide.

  1. Who sponsors/hosts the site?
  2. It costs money to have a website. Is it clear who is funding it? The web address is often helpful in figuring this out. The following endings identify the person or organization behind a particular site:

    • .gov: a U.S. government agency
    • .edu: an educational institution, usually a school or college
    • .org: usually a nonprofit organization, such as a scientific, medical, or research society
    • .com: a commercial organization or business
  3. Is there clear contact information?
  4. Trustworthy websites list contact information for users who want to reach the people involved with the site. They often include information such as an email address, phone number, and/or mailing address on a separate "Contact Us" or "About Us" page or at the bottom of each page on the site.

  5. Who wrote the information?
  6. Although authors and contributors to websites are often identified, this is not always the case. Most government sites have many, so they credit a department rather than listing the names of everyone who was involved in writing the article. It should be clear what connections contributors have to the site, including any financial interests they may have in the content.

    Be particularly wary of testimonials. Not everyone experiences the same health problems in the same way. Remember that there is a difference between a website made a someone simply interested in a subject and a site including strong scientific evidence gathered from research. No website can—or should—replace a discussion with a healthcare professional.

  7. Who reviews the information?
  8. If the site has an "About Us" page, check it to see whether or not experts review the information before it goes online. Make sure any list of editors or reviewers includes actual medical experts. Trustworthy sites will tell you where the information came from and how it was checked.

  9. Is the information up-to-date?
  10. Reliable websites keep their health information current. No one should make healthcare decisions based on out-of-date information. Pages often include a date somewhere, and some may be updated more often than others.

  11. How does the site protect your privacy?
  12. Read through the site's privacy policy, which is often located at the bottom of a page or on an "About Us," "Privacy Policy," or "Our Policies" page. If it says something along the lines of "We share information with companies that can provide you with products," your information is not being kept private.

    Be extremely wary when sites ask for your Social Security number. Find out why it's necessary, how it will be used, and what will happen if you don't provide it. Some sites, such as those for health insurance companies, may need it in order to process claims.

  13. Does the site offer a miracle cure or other quick and easy solution to a health problem?
  14. Question websites and companies claiming that they have a product that will cure many illnesses. Make sure there are other websites out there that include the same information. Even if a site links to a trustworthy source, it doesn't necessarily mean it has that source's endorsement or support. Websites don't need permission to link to each other.

Trustworthy Online Sources for Health Information

Although not all websites providing health information are reliable, there are many that are. The following organizations are good places to start:

  • The National Institute of Health
  • NIA
  • NIHSeniorHealth
  • MedlinePlus
  • The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
  • The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders
  • The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research