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Finding and Evaluating Online Resources

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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:

  1. Who runs or created the site or app? Can you trust them?
  2. What is the site or app promising or offering? Do its claims seem too good to be true?
  3. When was its information written or reviewed? Is it up-to-date?
  4. Where does the information come from? Is it based on scientific research?
  5. Why does the site or app exist? Is it selling something?

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 Web Sites

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.

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.

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

NCCIH Clearinghouse

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

tty (for deaf and hard-of-hearing callers):

1-866-464-3615

Website: https://nccih.nih.gov/

Email: info@nccih.nih.gov (link sends e-mail)

PubMed®

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.

Website: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/

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)

Website: https://www.cancer.gov/

Email: cancergovstaff@mail.nih.gov (link sends e-mail)

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), fact sheets on a variety of specific supplement ingredients and products (such as vitamin D and multivitamin/mineral supplements), and the PubMed Dietary Supplement Subset.

Website: https://ods.od.nih.gov/

Email: ods@nih.gov (link sends e-mail)

MedlinePlus

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.

Website: https://www.medlineplus.gov/

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

Website: https://www.fda.gov/

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

Website: https://www.fda.gov/AboutFDA/CentersOffices/OfficeofFoods/CFSAN/

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.

Website: https://dsld.nlm.nih.gov/dsld/

Key References

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.

Last Updated: January 2018