Friday, March 30, 2012

Beware of Internet health advice

St. Luke’s Health Watch

Carol Wade

It happens often. A patient comes in for a procedure and says, "You don't need to explain that, I watched it on YouTube last night." I love it when people research their own medical care, but, nonetheless, I do go on to explain.

Never has so much information been available. A recent Google search for HPV brought up 28 million hits, though some information, such as the "best online home for herpes, HPV and other STD dating," was obviously questionable and possibly dangerous. How do we sort it all out? Is it timely? Reliable? Safe?

Using a general search engine such as Yahoo or Google will yield a vast amount of information, some of which may not be relevant or trustworthy. Well-recognized health sites will generally produce more reliable info in an organized fashion. Looking at the extension at the end of the website address will give some hints of any bias: government (.gov), universities (.edu), national organizations such as the Alzheimer's Association (.org) and private companies like pharmaceuticals (.com), though many hospital sites will also use .com.

Thoroughly examine a website before you follow its advice. Does it display information and credentials of the author? Does it display a mission statement? Who is the intended audience? Is there a privacy policy? Are funding sources disclosed? Is the information referenced and updated? Is contact information easy to find? Is it paid for by advertising?

The international nonprofit group Health on the Net Foundation gives a seal of approval intended to ensure credible content. Look for this on a website, or go to the foundation for links to approved sites ( The Medical Library Association gives criteria to evaluate individual websites (

Good medical information online is abundant today, and almost none is restricted to medical professionals. The Consumer and Patient Health Information Section of the Medical Library Association has a link that lists 100 reliable health sites. The federal Department of Health and Human Services has indexed thousands of useful websites.


Medline Plus gives basic medical information in English and Spanish and links to other helpful sites. The National Cancer Institute posts information on screening, diagnosis and treatment for all types of cancer. The Centers for Disease Control provides an amazing amount of information on disease prevention for travel and for everyday life. Some of the better private sites are the Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic. Blogs and YouTube will give you anecdotal personal experiences that may have some value, but must be taken simply as that.

Having up-to-date health information can help you decide whether you should schedule an appointment with your provider, and can serve as the basis of a meaningful discussion on important issues. Remember, though, it does not serve as a substitute for health care with your quality provider.

Recommended websites:

Carol Wade is a nurse practitioner with St. Luke's Clinic-Family Practice Associates in Hailey.

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