Finding and Evaluating Online Resources
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:
- If you're looking for information about complementary and integrative health approaches:
- Use the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) Web site 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 Web site.
- 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 Web site 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 Web pages:
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.
Who runs and pays for the Web site?
- Any reliable health-related Web site should make it easy for you to learn who's responsible for the site. For example, on the NCCIH Web site, 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 Web site 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 Web sites 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 Web site if health experts reviewed it. Some Web sites 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 Web sites 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).
How does the site collect and handle personal information? Is the site secure?
- Web sites 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 Web site?
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.
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
- 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 Web site. Accessed at https://ods.od.nih.gov/Health_Information/How_To_Evaluate_Health_
- Information_on_the_Internet_Questions_and_Answers.aspx 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 Web site. 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 Web site. 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 Web site.
- Find quality resources. HealthIT.gov Web site. 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 https://www.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.