Finding and Evaluating Online Resources
What’s the Bottom Line?
How much do we know about online resources for complementary health approaches?
The number of web and social media sites, along with mobile apps, offering health information about complementary and integrative health approaches (often called complementary and alternative medicine) grows every day.
What do we know about the accuracy of online health information?
- Some online sources of information on complementary health approaches are useful, but others are inaccurate or misleading.
- Don’t rely on online resources when making decisions about your health. If you’re considering a complementary health approach, discuss it with your health care provider.
Checking Out Online Sources of Health Information: Five Quick Questions
If you’re visiting an online health site for the first time or downloading a new app, ask these five questions:
- Who runs or created the site or app? Can you trust them?
- What is the site or app promising or offering? Do its claims seem too good to be true?
- When was its information written or reviewed? Is it up-to-date?
- Where does the information come from? Is it based on scientific research?
- Why does the site or app exist? Is it selling something?
Finding Health Information on the Internet: How To Start
- To find accurate health information, start with one of these organized collections of high-quality resources:
- MedlinePlus, sponsored by the National Library of Medicine, which is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH)
- healthfinder.gov, sponsored by the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
- If you’re looking for information about complementary and integrative health approaches:
- Use the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) website as a starting point. NCCIH is the Federal Government’s lead agency for scientific research on complementary and integrative health approaches.
- Follow NCCIH on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. These accounts are updated and managed by NCCIH and provide the latest resources on a variety of complementary health approaches.
- For information on dietary supplements, visit the NIH Office of Dietary Supplements website.
- For additional reliable resources from Federal agencies or the World Health Organization on complementary health approaches, visit NCCIH’s Links to Other Organizations page.
Finding Health Information on Mobile Health Apps
- There are thousands of mobile apps (a software program you access using your phone or other mobile device) that provide health information you can read on your mobile devices. Almost 20 percent of smartphone owners had at least one health app on their phones in 2012.
- Keep these things in mind when using a mobile health app:
- The content of most apps isn’t written or reviewed by medical experts and may be inaccurate and unsafe. In addition, the information you enter when using an app may not be secure.
- There’s little research on the benefits, risks, and impact of health apps, such as the many mindfulness meditation apps that are now available.
- It’s not always easy to know what personal information an app will access or how it will store your data.
- Before you download an app, find out if the store you get the app from says who created it. Don’t trust the app if contact or website information for the creator isn’t available.
- Some reliable health apps created by Government agencies can be found by visiting:
- For more information on mobile health apps and safety, see these Federal Trade Commission webpages:
Some of the health information you’ll find online is in the form of news reports. Some of these reports are reliable, but others are confusing, conflicting, or misleading, or they may be missing important information. To find out how to evaluate news stories about complementary health, visit our interactive module Know the Science: The Facts About Health News Stories.
More Questions To Ask When Finding Health Information on Websites
Your search for online health information may start at a known, trusted site, but after following several links, you may find yourself on an unfamiliar site. Can you trust this site? Here are some key questions you need to ask.
Who runs and pays for the website?
- Any reliable health-related website should make it easy for you to learn who’s responsible for the site. For example, on the NCCIH website, each major page identifies NCCIH and, because NCCIH is part of NIH, provides a link to the NIH home page. You should be able to find out who runs a website and its purpose on the “About Us” page.
- A web address (such as NCCIH’s) that ends in “.gov” means it’s a government-sponsored site; “.edu” indicates an educational institution; “.org” usually means a noncommercial organization and “.com” a commercial organization. Some “.org” sites belong to organizations that promote an agenda; their content may be biased.
- Who pays for the site? Does the site sell advertising? Is it sponsored by a company that sells dietary supplements, drugs, or other products or services? Confirm any information you find on a site that sells products with an independent site that doesn’t sell products.
What’s the source of the information?
- Many health or medical sites post information collected from other websites or sources, which should be identified. For example, the Health Topics A–Z page on the NCCIH site provides links to documents that NCCIH didn’t create—but we name the sources of the documents.
How do you know if the information is accurate?
- The site should describe the evidence (such as articles in medical journals) that the material is based on. Also, opinions or advice should be clearly set apart from information that’s “evidence-based” (based on research results). For example, if a site discusses health benefits you can expect from a treatment, look for references to scientific research that clearly support what’s said.
- Keep in mind that testimonials, anecdotes, unsupported claims, and opinions aren’t the same as objective, evidence-based information.
Is the information reviewed by experts?
- You can be more confident in the quality of medical information on a website if health experts reviewed it. Some websites have an editorial board that reviews content. Others put the names and credentials of reviewers in an Acknowledgments section near the end of the page.
How current is the information?
- Outdated medical information can be misleading or even dangerous. Responsible health websites review and update much of their content on a regular basis, especially fact sheets and lists of frequently asked questions (FAQs). However, content such as news reports or meeting summaries that describe an event usually isn’t updated. To find out whether information is old, look for a date on the page (it’s often near the bottom).
What’s the site’s policy about linking to other sites?
- Some sites don’t link to any other sites, some link to any site that asks or pays for a link, and others link only to sites that meet certain criteria. You may be able to find information on the site about its linking policy. (For example, NCCIH’s linking policy is available on the NCCIH Website Information and Policies page.)
- Unless the site’s linking policy is strict, don’t assume that the sites that it links to are reliable. You should evaluate the linked sites just as you would any other site that you’re visiting for the first time.
How does the site collect and handle personal information? Is the site secure?
- Websites track what pages you’re looking at. They may also ask you to “subscribe” or “become a member.” Any credible site collecting this kind of information should tell you exactly what it will and won’t do with it.
- Many commercial sites sell “aggregate” (collected) data about their users to other companies—information such as what percentage of their users are women over 40. In some cases, they may collect and reuse information that’s “personally identifiable,” such as your ZIP code, gender, and birth date.
- See if the address (URL) for the site starts with “https://” instead of “http://.” Sites that use HTTPS (Secure Hyper Text Transfer Protocol) are encrypted, less likely to be hacked, and more likely to protect your privacy.
Can you communicate with the owner of the website?
Is it safe to link to Twitter or Facebook through a website?
- If the site is linked to social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube, spend some time reading what has been posted to see whether you feel comfortable with the tone before joining in. You may also be able to review past discussions. Also, look for a comments policy on the website, such as NCCIH’s social media comments policy.
More information about online health resources is available from the following sources:
- Evaluating Health Websites (National Network of Libraries of Medicine)
- Using Trusted Resources (National Cancer Institute)
- How To Evaluate Health Information on the Internet: Questions and Answers (Office of Dietary Supplements)
- Evaluating Health Information (MedlinePlus)
- MedlinePlus Guide to Healthy Web Surfing (MedlinePlus)
- En español:
Are You Reading News or Advertising?
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has warned the public about fake online news sites. The site may look real, but is actually an advertisement. The site may use the logos of legitimate news organizations or similar names and web addresses. To get you to sign up for whatever they’re selling, they may describe an “investigation” into the effectiveness of the product. But everything is fake: there is no reporter, no news organization, and no investigation. Only the links to a sales site are real. Fake news sites have promoted questionable products, including acai berry for weight loss, work-at-home opportunities, and debt reduction plans.
You should suspect that a news site may be fake if it:
- Endorses a product. Real news organizations generally don’t do this.
- Only quotes people who say good things about the product.
- Presents research findings that seem too good to be true. (If something seems too good to be true, it usually is.)
- Contains links to a sales site.
- Includes only positive reader comments, and you can’t add a comment of your own.
Read more information about fake ads and stories online
How To Protect Yourself From Fake News Sites
If you suspect that a news site is fake, look for a disclaimer somewhere on the page (often in small print) that indicates that the site is an advertisement. Also, don’t rely on internet news reports when making important decisions about your health. If you’re considering a health product described in the news, discuss it with your health care provider.
More To Consider
- If you’re thinking about using a dietary supplement, first get information on it from reliable sources. Keep in mind that dietary supplements may interact with medications or other supplements and may contain ingredients not listed on the label. Your health care provider can advise you.
- Take charge of your health—talk with your health care providers about any complementary health approaches you use. Together, you can make shared, well-informed decisions.
For More Information
The NCCIH Clearinghouse provides information on NCCIH and complementary and integrative health approaches, including publications and searches of Federal databases of scientific and medical literature. The Clearinghouse does not provide medical advice, treatment recommendations, or referrals to practitioners.
Toll-free in the U.S.: 1-888-644-6226
Telecommunications relay service (TRS): 7-1-1
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org (link sends email)
Know the Science
NCCIH and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) provide tools to help you understand the basics and terminology of scientific research so you can make well-informed decisions about your health. Know the Science features a variety of materials, including interactive modules, quizzes, and videos, as well as links to informative content from Federal resources designed to help consumers make sense of health information.
Explaining How Research Works (NIH)
Know the Science: 9 Questions To Help You Make Sense of Health Research
A service of the National Library of Medicine, PubMed® contains publication information and (in most cases) brief summaries of articles from scientific and medical journals. For guidance from NCCIH on using PubMed, see How To Find Information About Complementary Health Approaches on PubMed.
National Cancer Institute (NCI)
The National Cancer Institute is the Federal Government's lead agency for cancer research. The National Cancer Institute's Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine coordinates and enhances the National Cancer Institute's activities in research on complementary health approaches.
Toll-free in the U.S.: 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237)
Email: email@example.com (link sends email)
Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS), National Institutes of Health (NIH)
ODS seeks to strengthen knowledge and understanding of dietary supplements by evaluating scientific information, supporting research, sharing research results, and educating the public. Its resources include publications (such as Dietary Supplements: What You Need To Know) and fact sheets on a variety of specific supplement ingredients and products (such as vitamin D and multivitamin/mineral supplements).
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org (link sends email)
To provide resources that help answer health questions, MedlinePlus (a service of the National Library of Medicine) brings together authoritative information from the National Institutes of Health as well as other Government agencies and health-related organizations.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
The FDA oversees the safety of many products, such as foods, medicines, dietary supplements, medical devices, and cosmetics. See its webpage on Dietary Supplements.
Toll-free in the U.S.: 1-888-463-6332
Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN)
Part of the FDA, CFSAN oversees the safety and labeling of supplements, foods, and cosmetics. It provides information on dietary supplements. Online resources for consumers include Tips for Dietary Supplement Users: Making Informed Decisions and Evaluating Information.
Toll-free in the U.S.: 1-888-723-3366
Dietary Supplement Label Database
The Dietary Supplement Label Database—a project of the National Institutes of Health—has all the information found on labels of many brands of dietary supplements marketed in the United States. Users can compare the amount of a nutrient listed on a label with the Government’s recommended amounts.
- Albrecht UV, Von Jan U, Pramann O. Standard reporting for medical apps. Studies in Health Technology and Informatics. 2013;190:201-203.
- Carissoli C, Villani D, Riva G. Does a meditation protocol supported by a mobile application help people reduce stress? Suggestions from a controlled pragmatic trial. Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking. 2015;18(1):46-53.
- Office of Dietary Supplements. How To Evaluate Health Information on the Internet: Questions and Answers. Office of Dietary Supplements website. Accessed on November 29, 2016.
- Plaza I, Demarzo MM, Herrera-Mercadal P, et al. Mindfulness-based mobile applications: literature review and analysis of current features. JMIR mHealth and uHealth. 2013;1(2):e24.
- Subhi Y, Bube SH, Rolskov Bojsen S, et al. Expert involvement and adherence to medical evidence in medical mobile phone apps: a systematic review. JMIR mHealth and uHealth. 2015;3(3):e79.
All Other References
- Boulos MN, Brewer AC, Karimkhani C, et al. Mobile medical and health apps: state of the art, concerns, regulatory control and certification. Online Journal of Public Health Informatics. 2014;5(3):229.
- Buying health products and services online. Federal Trade Commission website. Accessed at www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0023-buying-health-products-and-services-online on November 29, 2016.
- Comprar productos y servicios para la salud en internet. Federal Trade Commission website. Accessed at www.consumidor.ftc.gov/articulos/s0023-comprar-productos-y-servicios-para-la-salud-en-internet on November 29, 2016.
- Consumer Reports. Beware of Fake News Online. Consumer Reports website.
- Find quality resources. HealthIT.gov website. Accessed at www.healthit.gov/patients-families/find-quality-resources on November 29, 2016.
- Mani M, Kavanagh DJ, Hides L, et al. Review and evaluation of mindfulness-based iPhone apps. JMIR mHealth and uHealth. 2015;3(3):e82
- Marcano Belisario JS, Huckvale K, Greenfield G, et al. Smartphone and tablet self management apps for asthma. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2013;(11):CD010013. Accessed at cochranelibrary.com on November 29, 2016.
- Martínez-Pérez B, de la Torre-Díez I, López-Coronado M. Privacy and security in mobile health apps: a review and recommendations. Journal of Medical Systems. 2015;39(1):181.
- Wallace LS, Dhingra LK. A systematic review of smartphone applications for chronic pain available for download in the United States. Journal of Opioid Management. 2014;10(1):63-68.
This publication is not copyrighted and is in the public domain. Duplication is encouraged.
NCCIH has provided this material for your information. It is not intended to substitute for the medical expertise and advice of your health care provider(s). We encourage you to discuss any decisions about treatment or care with your health care provider. The mention of any product, service, or therapy is not an endorsement by NCCIH.