Trusting Online Medical Information

September 14, 2015 

Trusting Online Medical Information


More and more American adults are using the Internet to identify or diagnose health problems. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, 72 percent of American adults who use the Internet have gone to it for health information within the last year.


In fact, Pew reports that 35 percent of American adults have gone to the Internet specifically to determine what medical condition they, a family member, or friend might have.  Obviously, the internet has a huge amount of information available extremely quickly. For example, a recent Google search on chest pain yielded 26.7 million results – in 22 seconds, no less.


The result of all of this easy access often is confusion because of medical information overload.


The availability is a great advantage, but also poses a great risk unless users understand their symptoms and are careful to evaluate the source of the information they read or watch online. The quality of information has been found to vary widely, yet most users do not have the skills or tools to discern the difference.


According to Pew, about 41 percent of those who sought health information online had their diagnosis confirmed by their physician. Another 35 percent did not seek a medical opinion, and 18 percent said their physician did not agree with their conclusions based on online research.


About 20 percent of Internet users have gone online for ratings of health professionals or treatments, and 13 percent of adults have gone online to find others who suffer from the same illness that they do. Respondents report that they turn to health professionals for technical information, and they prefer non-professionals when they seek information such as how to cope with an illness.


Individuals who search for health information on the Internet tend to be young Caucasian female college graduates, with a family income of more than $75,000 a year.


Here are some tips for evaluating medical information online:

  • Make sure the author is not also selling a “cure” for the condition.
  • Sites sponsored by the federal government, university or large professional organization are more reliable.
  • If you can’t find who sponsored the site, it probably is not trustworthy.
  • Check the date on the information; medical research is constant and results change quickly in some areas.
  • If the website offers quick and easy solutions to health problems, you should be cautious.
  • Check to see whether the site provides information on how to contact the sponsor of the information.


While many of the sites online can be helpful, properly peer-reviewed, and therefore trustworthy, caution is the word of the day. Use the Internet for help in formulating the questions you will ask your health care provider, but do not rely solely on Internet information for serious medical conditions.