Medical Websites and Patient Care: Who Can You Trust?

72% of Internet users reported looking online for health information in the past year
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Do your patients search the Web for health or medical advice? Statistically-speaking, they probably do.

According to a Pew Research Health Fact sheet from December 2013, 72% of Internet users reported looking online for health information in the past year. Today, more people than ever are going online and then staying connected via smart phones and other mobile technologies.

What does this mean for you?

As a healthcare provider, you probably already answer questions about information that your patients find on the Web. Do you also help the people in your care to evaluate the information they discover? Sometimes, patients draw incorrect conclusions about medical treatments. That’s what happened when a patient with Lou Gehrig’s disease was encouraged by the placebo effects of an epilepsy drug.

According to a report from the American College of Physicians, the patient went online to encourage other members of an ALS support group to ask their doctors for the same medication. Fortunately, no one was hurt by the first patient’s advice. Yet the implications for medical professionals and their patients are clear. How can you tell if you can trust what you find on a website?

Websites like WebMD display a HONcode icon at the bottom of pages. HON stands for “Health on the Net”, and indicates that the Health on the Net Foundation considers the site to be reliable and credible. If a medical website doesn’t have a HONcode there are other ways to evaluate the content:

  • Read their “About Us” descriptions
  • Check the authors’ credentials (Are they experts?)
  • Try to determine when the site was last updated

HONcode icon

Consider the type of organization that is providing the information, too. If the website is dedicated to a particular drug, the authors may have a financial incentive to promote the medication. By contrast, universities and governmental sponsors are generally free from these pressures. So encourage your patients to consider the sources of their information. You’ll help them – and possibly other patients, too.

What do you think?

What are the resources that you refer to your patients the most?