Are online medical sites as good as a doctor visit?

When it comes to your health, the old saying is true: “Don’t believe everything you read.” This is especially true on the Internet. The Web can be a great resource to increase your health IQ, but it’s important to remember to be skeptical. Using the Internet is like going on a treasure hunt: You can find some gems, but you can also end up in some very strange places.

Consider these ideas to improve your chances of finding accurate information:

1. Is the site selling something? If so, the viewpoint is more likely to be biased than on sites simply trying to provide information.

Try to figure out who runs the site. Look for a section marked “about us.” It may be in the fine print at the bottom of the page, but it should still be visible. In that section look for an editorial board, a selection policy for how they decide to include or exclude information and a review process that shows the site tries to verify the accuracy of the information. Many sites simply trying to sell you something will not have an “about us” section.

If there are ads on the site, it should be easy to separate the ads from the health information. Even the most reputable sites may have ads, but they should be clearly labeled as such.

2. Good sites rely on medical research, not on opinion. You should be able to find out where information came from so that you can go back to the source and check the facts. If “a recent research study” is mentioned, there should be details about who conducted the research and where it was done.

A site should clearly state whether it is providing opinions or facts. Personal experiences can be valuable to others considering a particular treatment, but opinions or testimonials should be clearly labeled.

To validate information, compare it to others. When several sources report similar information on a topic, it is more likely to be accurate.

3. Is the site reviewed and updated regularly? The last date when the site was updated is often clearly listed. If the last update was in 2009, then you should move to a site with more recent information.

4. Some sites ask you to become a member. Look at the site’s privacy policy to see how your personal information will be used before becoming a member.

5. Online information is not a substitute for medical advice. Your doctor knows your child’s specific health issues and is the best person to answer questions. If you find information you think is relevant to your child’s health, be sure to share it with your pediatrician. Being an active partner with your physician will lead to the best medical care for your child.

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