Your Guide to Finding Credible Medical Information and Advice
To arm yourself with the knowledge you need to lead a healthy lifestyle, you have to ensure any education materials you reference are from a trusted, reliable source. Inaccurate health information can be just as dangerous as choosing to live uninformed. The Internet makes it easy to find health information; all one needs are an Internet-connected device and a search engine. At the same time, the seemingly endless amount of information published online can be overwhelming and not all of it is credible, accurate, or current.
Inside This Guide
To help ensure that you use available online health information to remain educated and informed about health risks and healthy lifestyle behaviors, we’ve created this guide to include:
- Tips and best practices for vetting online health resources to ensure you know how to determine if a source is credible, or one you should disregard.
- A short, curated list of reliable online sources, and tips for finding reliable health insurance information.
- Tips for how to prepare for your next doctor’s appointment and what you should bring with you to ensure a proactive discussion.
- Information on the critical role that nurses play in our health care delivery system, and how to make nurses your allies in maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
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How to Evaluate Online Medical Content to Find Valuable Resources
If you feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of medical content that is searchable online, don’t let the quantity of information out there stop you from identifying quality resources that can help you educate yourself on how to maintain a healthy lifestyle. When searching for online medical information, ask yourself the questions below to help vet resources and identify reliable sources.
What Is It Selling?
One of the fastest ways to determine that a resource is not neutral is to identify if its content has been published by a for-profit medical equipment, supply, or product provider. For example, if you’re looking for advice on how to lower your cholesterol, you’ll want to consider a wide variety of recommendations.
If, however, you find yourself reading information provided by a pharmaceutical company that sells a brand of statin (a cholesterol-lowering prescription medication), the article’s advice may be skewed toward recommending its product over other alternatives. A non-neutral source does not make it necessarily unreliable, but being aware of potential biases will help you better process.
Bottom Line: Seek out neutral content providers that aim to offer education, and not push products.
What Entity is Running the Website?
You may need to do some digging to get to the bottom of this question, but it’s important to understand that even websites that seem like their primary goal is to offer “neutral” health-related information may be backed by a sponsor that is not neutral. For example, a website with heart-healthy tips may be owned and operated, or sponsored, by a drug manufacturer.
To determine the real managing body behind a website, do some investigating. If a website does not indicate its operating body or parent organization right on its homepage, search for an “about us” page. The truth may also be buried in the website’s footer—small areas with disclaimer-like language at the bottom of the page, often accompanied by contact information, a date, and copyright details.
Bottom Line: If the fine print in your healthy diet newsletter reveals a supplement manufacturer sponsored the content, for example, it’s a good bet the material is not being produced purely for educational consumption, but possibly to skew your perspective of a specific product or solution.
Does the Advice Seem Too Good to Be True? Then It Probably Is.
Even websites that aren’t selling products may be biased. A specific article’s author may feel strongly about a particular lifestyle choice, home remedy, or prescription alternative, and the goal of his/her post may be to convince others to feel the same way—without necessarily having the science to back it.
Any claims that advocate specific treatments, products, prescriptions, or supplies should be supported by science, data, research, or studies published in a reputable science journal. Also, a few positive testimonials from individuals who have claimed to use a product or service does not count as validation that the treatment is an accepted standard of care by the professional medical community.
Bottom Line: If an article’s recommendations seem to promise seemingly incredible results, or make grandiose claims that don’t seem to be backed by reliable resources, it’s likely not advice you can trust.
When Was It Published?
We don’t often think about recommendations in medicine changing, but in reality, the scientific medical community is continually uncovering new information to help fight diseases, lower the risk of health complications, and maintain general wellbeing. For this reason, credible information about health conditions, medications, and even wellness guidelines should be updated regularly.For example, remember the old food pyramid you learned about in school?
Today, the pyramid is out. It was replaced in 2011 by a visual guide that looks more like a plate and recommends a different ratio of grains to meats, to produce, to dairy, to fats. Similarly, the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) regularly reviews and reevaluates its recommendations for adult preventive screenings. It updates its guidelines when it is determined that modifications will ensure better preventive results.
Bottom Line: Look for medical content that was published no more than two years ago. Any reliable online healthcare resource should publish a date with all content and should regularly update any materials that have become outdated, so you should be able to determine if the information you are referring to is current.
Are All Facts Sourced?
Any reliable health information provider should either provide facts and statistics from its own research or provide a reliable source for its data. Even if an article does appear to be sourcing facts through the use of hyperlinks, click on those links to make sure the facts it has offered come from a trusted source. For example, any educational online health content that makes a recommendation on vaccinations, should be sourcing content from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and nowhere else.
Bottom Line: If an article is not sourced correctly, and you can’t verify where facts and recommendations are coming from, it’s not information you can trust.
Does the Website Require You to Provide Personal Information to Access Content?
While there are many credible subscription-based providers of medical information, make sure you know what your personal information is being used for before you provide it to any service. This suggestion is particularly important if the website is asking for any information beyond your name and email address.
There are a wide variety of free resources available, so be wary of websites that tell you that you must pay a “membership” or “subscription fee” or provide a credit card, to access content. They may want information about you to sell it to third parties for profit. Similarly, a website should not need to know your personal health information for you to access educational content.
If a website requires any personal information, it should disclose exactly how it will be used. For example, a website that wants to know if you have heart health-related concerns so that it can customize the articles you see upon logging in to focus on that topic may be of value to you. However, a website that wants to charge you for content, or sell your personal information to a third party, should be avoided.
Are Authors or Reviewers Credentialed?
Reliable health information will be written by qualified, credentialed health care professionals, such as a doctor (M.D.) or nurse (R.N.). When reading health articles, check for an author or editor byline, which should appear either at the beginning or end of the article. Know that while there are reliable online healthcare resources written by non-health care professionals, such content is ideally edited or reviewed by someone with clinical credentialing.
For example, WebMD provides a vast online medical resource directory, and while its articles are written by journalists, a nationwide network of doctors reviews all website content.Also, be wary of a website you’ve found that is maintained by a single individual—especially if he/she is not a doctor, nurse, or an otherwise credentialed health care professional. You should look for information published by a credible organization, and not a website that serves as a blog or personal journal, with articles that summarize the individual opinions and experiences of a single person.
Bottom Line: Make sure any medical advice, guidance, or recommendations you read are coming from a health-care professional.
Is This Accepted in the Medical Community?
Another way of saying this is to ask yourself how this information has been received by other health professionals. Peer-review is critical to credible information in the scientific community. If you find an unpopular opinion, evaluate its reception in the larger community and be aware of the criticisms surrounding it.
Bottom Line: Never stick to one person’s opinion or voice. Make sure that information and advice you follow is supported by a group of health professionals, and be aware of how it fits into the perspectives of the greater health community.
Can You Easily Contact a Representative from the Website?
A website producing medical information as a service should have staff available to answer questions from its users. It should also make policy information easily accessible. Be careful, though, as many sites have dummy emails, chat-bots, and phone numbers.
Bottom Line: If you have questions or concerns over any aspect of a website’s operations and aren’t able to find any avenues to contact a representative for assistance, the website may not be operated by reliable staff. Consider it a warning sign that its content may be equally as unreliable.
What is the Website’s Site Linking Policy?
When reviewing online medical information, you may find that parts of an article provide links to other third-party websites. These links may take you to products being sold, sources, additional information from credible sources, or advertisers.
As part of your process reviewing the credibility of each medical website you encounter, it’s important to consider the linking strategy of each one. If a website is linking to credible sources for more in-depth education, you can be comfortable that it is not trying to refer you to a paid advertiser. If, however, a recommendation for a specific drug, treatment, provider, medical equipment item, or other resource links you to a third-party that is attempting to sell you a product or service, know that the information from the original website may not be unbiased.
Bottom Line: Review the website linking policy of any online medical education resource you consider to make sure its recommendations don’t have an ulterior motive. You can typically find this information in the fine print, or on the website’s policy page. If the website doesn’t disclose its linking strategy, be wary of considering it a trusted resource.
What is the Domain?
At the end of a primary URL, a period or dot typically appears that is followed by two to three characters (for example: .com, .org, or .edu).
Believe it or not, you may be able to get an initial sense of whether or not the website you are searching is reputable by these small letters. Domains ending in .gov are restricted for use by United States government agencies only. Also, .edu domains are restricted to accredited degree-granting institutions of higher learning. These two domains may indicate a website is operated by a credible source.
On the other hand, .com URLs typically indicate a commercial website, and .orgs could be entities attempting to champion a specific cause.
Bottom Line: Checking the top-level domain on a URL may help you validate if a website is indeed a government agency or institution of higher learning, which may mean it is a credible source for health information. With other sites, you may still find credible information, but keep your eyes peeled for potential biases.
A Note About Social Media
It’s estimated that in the United States alone, 81 percent of individuals maintain a social media profile. Social media has revolutionized the way that we connect with one another, share information, and educate ourselves about the world around us. Social media has quickly become a resource for health and wellness news and information. For this reason, it is crucial to treat health information found on social media with the same scrutiny that you give all other online resources.
- Keep in mind that some information shared on social media is paid content supplied by biased advertisers. Before taking any health-related information you read on social media at face value, investigate the content to validate its source. Ask yourself the questions previously listed to determine if the source is credible.
- Even if an account seems legitimate based on its social media handle (or account name), or its profile, you should be cautious. Some profiles are well-designed to seem authentic when their actual intentions are not what they seem. Depending on the social media site you are using, you may be able to determine if the account has been verified. For example, on Twitter, a blue badge next to an account name verifies that the account is authentic.
Reminder: Always Seek the Counsel of a Doctor or Nurse
Remember, the benefit of seeking out online medical information is to provide you with a baseline understanding of healthy choices, risk factors, and possible health complications. If you feel, however, that you may be at risk of a health issue, or may have developed a concerning health care condition, make an appointment to see your doctor or nurse.
Only a healthcare professional can provide you with a diagnosis and a corresponding treatment plan. For more information on how to evaluate Internet health information, the National Library of Medicine offers an online tutorial.
Types of Websites You Should Visit to Start Your Research for Credible Medical Information
To help in your search for reputable online health information resources, we have compiled the short list below of reliable websites.
None of these are intended to replace consultation with a qualified medical professional. We recommend you use them to help provide context for these consults, helping you learn more about your conditions and the treatment options you have available. Use them to ask better questions of your healthcare providers.
- MedlinePlus – This resource is produced by the National Library of Medicine, the world’s most extensive medical library. It is the National Institute of Health's website for patients and their families and friends.
- Healthfinder.gov – This resource is sponsored by the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, a service provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
- WebMD – An online health resource with content created and curated by board-certified physicians, award-winning journalists, and trained community moderators. WebMD has received accreditation by the Utilization Review Accreditation Commission (URAC), an organization that aims to promote continuous improvement in the quality and efficiency of health care management through processes of accreditation, education, and measurement. WebMD offers a symptom checker tool that can help you to triage your symptoms and decide if you should make an appointment with your doctor, visit urgent care, or an emergency room.
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – The CDC website offers healthy lifestyle recommendations, tips for mitigating the risks of common contagious diseases, and comprehensive overviews of a wide range of medical conditions. The CDC is the major operating components of HHS.
- The World Health Organization (WHO) – Operating across 150 countries, the WHO works with governments and other partners to ensure the highest attainable level of health for all people. The WHO website offers a catalog of health education materials, health recommendations for travelers, and news and updates on outbreaks and epidemics that could have widespread implications.
A Note About Rating Websites
The ubiquity of the Internet, social media sites and online product review guides has resulted in an emergence of online healthcare provider rating services. Such tools exist to allow patients to proactively seek information about prospective facilities or health care providers before making an appointment so that the patient can make the best decision possible and obtain the highest level of care. Often, these websites allow users to rate providers, sometimes using a star rating system, and sometimes leaving a personal testimonial.
While healthcare rating websites may be helpful in allowing you to identify health care providers that participate with your insurance provider, confirming individual provider credentialing, and affiliations with healthcare systems and hospitals, be wary. Do not rely on a small number of testimonials as the sole factor you take into consideration when determining a provider’s credibility.
- Bottom Line: If a provider has received a star rating, check the sample size. Two reviews are nowhere near statistically significant. A single experience may vary widely from that of the majority, and each person’s experience will be heavily impacted by his/her personal health situation. If a provider or health care facility has hundreds or thousands of reviews, you may be more comfortable that the feedback represents a large enough sample size to provide a legitimate average.
Be Prepared for Your Next Health Care Appointment
Whether you are attending a regular, annual well visit, or have an appointment as part of a treatment plan to manage a chronic or onset condition, make sure you get the most out of each appointment by arriving prepared to have a quality discussion with your healthcare provider, whether they are a physician, P.A., nurse practitioner, or other professional.
What to Bring to a Doctor’s Appointment
Part of being prepared for your doctor’s appointment involves bringing the proper documentation, resources, and materials with you. What follows is a list of those items you should plan to bring with you to any visit with your health care team:
In the weeks leading up to your visit, keep a record of when you experience specific symptoms, and with what intensity. Doing so will help your health care providers identify patterns that could help in a diagnosis or treatment plan.
- Relevant Medical History Information. Your health care team, which includes physicians, nurses, specialists, therapists, etc. will need a comprehensive understanding of your health history to offer you a useful and personally-tailored treatment plan. Plan to bring to your appointment a record of:
- Current diagnosed medical conditions.
- Past diagnoses or health complications.
- Previous, recent surgeries.
- A diary of recent symptoms.
- Prescription Drug Information. Plan to bring a list of all prescription medications you are currently taking, including dosage information, and recent changes to prescriptions. It may be convenient to bring all the pill bottles with you, rather than trying to create a list. If you are no longer taking a previously prescribed medication, make sure to provide that update to your doctor as well. To minimize potential combination side effects, your doctor will need a reliable picture of all medications you are and are not currently taking.
- Name and Contact Information for All Your Other Health Care Professionals and Specialists.
- Contact Information for Your Next of Kin, Health Care Proxy, or Emergency Contact. This information is vital for your health care team to keep on file in case of an emergency, but you may also want to bring a family member with you. If you are a senior or a disabled adult who relies on the support and care of a spouse, parent, child, friend, or another caregiver, you may want to consider bringing a caregiver with you to your appointment. Anyone helping to support you will benefit from hearing recommendations and treatment plan considerations directly from your doctor or nurse.
- Drug Allergy Information.
- A List (With Doses) of any Supplements, Vitamins, Herbal Remedies, and Over-the-Counter (OTC) Medications You are Regularly Taking.
- Current Insurance Coverage Information. More specifically, bring your health insurance membership card, which may be a Medicare or Medicaid card. Also, bring a photo ID, such as a state driver’s license.
- Recent Test or Lab Results. Even if your healthcare team should have these results on hand, bringing them should serve as a reminder to you to discuss the results with your doctor.
- A Method of Payment. Review your benefit plan before your appointment to confirm what services are covered, and at what coverage level. You may have a copay or coinsurance due at the time of your appointment. You may also have to pay in full for services and submit a receipt to your insurance carrier for reimbursement if the services quality. Make sure you know what financial obligation you may have on the day of your appointment and bring a method of payment.
- Information on Any Alternative Therapies You Regularly Utilize. This may include chiropractic care and acupuncture. Bring a list of your providers, treatment plans, and visit schedule.
- A List of Questions. Spend some time thinking about the questions you’d like to ask your health care team and bring them with you in writing. You may only have a limited amount of time with your doctor—but it is your dedicated time, so make sure you don’t leave without having all of your questions answered and concerns addressed. If you need further clarification on the answers you received from your doctor; a nurse can help.
- A Pen and a Notebook. Depending on whether your appointment is a typical well visit, a follow-up post-surgery, or part of an ongoing treatment plan, you may very well have in-depth discussions with your doctor, and he/she may provide a lot of information that you’ll want to document. Bring a notebook and a pen to your doctor’s appointment and don’t be shy about taking notes, asking your health care team to repeat what has been said, or clarifying items that may initially confuse you.
- Your Calendar. Regardless of the reason for your visit, you will likely leave with a follow-up appointment, whether it’s a year away, or a week away. Whether it’s accessible on your smartphone, or in a notebook, make sure to bring your calendar with you so you can accurately and conveniently schedule any follow-ups.
Your Greatest Health Care Allies Might Be Your Nurses: Consider Them Your Advocates
Nurses play an instrumental, sometimes undervalued role in the health care delivery system. They are often the first ones that you see during an appointment, and they are the individuals checking in on you regularly during an inpatient stay. Their familiarity with their patients and their extensive hands-on exposure with each one often means that they are the health-care providers who will first notice a change in symptoms or vitals, making them a critical advocate for your care and treatment.
Read on to learn more about the vital role that nurses play in helping you heal, and how to make the nurses in your health care team your advocates.
- Help Your Nurse Help You. Nurses are more than caregivers who are available to fetch you an extra blanket or check your blood pressure every hour. They are trained medical professionals who are driven by about patient outcomes. Tell them how you are feeling, and raise any concerns you may have regarding your symptoms. These are not conversations that need to wait until your doctor’s next appearance, especially if you are in an inpatient setting. Help your nurses to help you by maintaining open dialogue and taking their advice in return.
- Respect Their Time. When you’re not feeling well, or you’ve been admitted to the hospital for an extended period, you may be tempted to vent your frustrations to the people you see most frequently: the nurse staff. It can be easy to forget that they are treating dozens of other patients with health concerns just as significant as yours. Be respectful of their time, and be patient with them as they follow up on your requests for specific items. The more respectfully you treat them, the better they will be able to focus on your treatment plan and on monitoring your progress.
- Be Specific in Making Requests, and Allow Them to Use Their Judgement to Triage Your Needs. Rather than stating that you “need a nurse,” be specific when making requests of the staff as to the reason you need your nurse. If you urgently need assistance going to the bathroom, or you need another dose of pain medication, say so, and let the next available staff member assist you, even if it’s not your primary nurse. On the other hand, if you merely need ice chips to treat a dry mouth, you may have to wait while the staff addresses more urgent patient matters. Give the nurse staff the latitude they need to triage patient care appropriately. Doing so will allow them to do their best work, for everyone.
- Remember That Nurses Administer Life-Saving Treatments. Doctors are crucial to the health care system as they diagnose conditions and establish treatment plans. Nurses, however, as just as essential, as they are often the ones administering life-saving treatments and noticing telling details of a patient’s disease course. For example, nurses administer medications, vaccinations, transfusions, intravenous therapies, dialysis, and chemotherapy. Their hands-on care directly saves lives and improves patient health. Nurses will have more direct interaction with your treatment and should be providers you work to make your allies. Trust in their recommendations and share with them any concerns you may have, including any worsening of your symptoms.
- You Can Trust Them, So Go Ahead and Confide in Them. According to the 2016 Gallup Poll that annually ranks the public’s perceptions of the most trustworthy professions, nurses received the overall highest ratings for honesty and ethical standards, and for good reasons. Nurses are trained to be skilled, knowledgeable, comforting caregivers, making them some of your most important advocates in the healthcare system. They are solely committed to the care of their patients. It is the only metric relevant to their performance, and it is the basis of the code of ethics to which they are committed. The more open you are with them, the more they can help.
- Nurses are Often Your First Line of Defense and Your Most Accessible Resource. The regimented schedules of doctors don’t always allow them to accommodate an unexpected consultation, inquiry, or phone call. If you need to speak to a health care provider, most likely, the caregiver you’ll be able to reach will be a nurse. If you worry that a nurse isn’t able to offer you the same level of guidance as a physician, you should know that in many cases, nurses are more than qualified to give you reliable advice and answer questions. Nurses are not only required to follow established standards of care; they help to develop such criteria, making them qualified to help you triage the severity of a condition or the symptoms giving you concern.
- Nurses Serve as Interpreters and Navigators. We’ve all been there. We finish our 10-minute physician consultation, and after the doctor leaves the room, we’re left with questions about where to go next. Patients should rely on their nurses to help translate and explain any complex medical information provided by the physician, and provide guidance for navigating the health care system. For example, a nurse can advise where to obtain recommended medical equipment, how to receive a referral to a specialist, and which prescriptions may be available in a generic equivalent. They are also often a patient and family’s resource throughout the discharge planning process, offering advice and logistical support as the recovery process transitions from the hospital to home. Don’t let questions go unanswered. Talk to available nurses and allow them to help you decide how best to move forward after your appointment.
- Nurses are Sources of Comfort for Family Members. If it is a family member or loved one who is receiving ongoing medical care, as their caregiver, you’ll be weighed down with questions and in need of minute details, especially if you’re not able to be with your loved one every minute of every day. You’ll want to know how their mood has been throughout the day, how their vital signs have fluctuated if they’ve been eating well, if they’re getting enough sleep, and on, and on until you feel informed and comforted. It will be the nurse on call who can provide this level of detail, making him/her an essential ally for family members in need of comfort and reassurance.
Remember, you are at the center of your health care delivery system. You are the one person who is best able to manage your health and wellness, question onset symptoms, monitor progress toward goals, and make the healthy decisions each day that will help you maintain a long and healthy lifestyle—for you and your loved ones. By educating yourself using credible healthcare information, being prepared for your doctor’s visits, and relying on nurse advocates to help you achieve your goals, you will be best positioned to advocate for and lead the quality life you deserve.
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