Locating reliable health information on the Internet

Can you trust Internet health information?

More and more, people are using the Internet to find information on all topics, including health information. A recent article  by the PEW Internet & American Life Project estimates that 75-80% of Internet users have searched for health information online, and that most reported high levels of satisfaction with the information they found.

That said, not all sites on the Internet provide reliable health information. And, as Mark Twain famously said: “Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint”.

Libraries can help you locate reliable health information on the Internet, by providing classes, electronic resources or by answering your questions in person or online. There are also a number of sites you can check to see if that alarming e-mail you just read is a hoax or fraud.

Is it hard to find health information I can trust?

Many sites provide health information, but not all sites provide unbiased, verified health information. For example, a website marketing a particular medication or health product may have all kinds of information about the benefits of their product, but omit to mention those studies which may have found fault with it.

Other sites may provide some information, but not enough, or may provide outdated information. Health information changes rapidly, with new discoveries being made daily: outdated information can be misleading or, worse, dangerous.

How can I make sure the information is correct?

Before following any advice you find online, make sure to discuss it with your doctor. Only personal contact with a qualified healthcare practitioner — who knows your health history, who can examine you, and who can bring expertise and experience to bear on your situation — can yield advice about how you ought to handle any of the information you obtain from sources accessed through this service.

There are several questions you should ask yourself to help you decide if the information you found is of high quality. For example:

  • Why was the information created?
    Can you detect a bias? Who is the information written for?
  • Who is responsible for the information? (authority)
    Are they qualified (and can you check that)? Is it a reputable publisher? Are they selling anything? If you try to contact them, does a real person answer you? Are there alternatives for obtaining the information, such as phoning or having reports posted to you?
  • Is the subject coverage complete and in enough depth?
    For disease information, does it indicate the causes, how to prevent it , how to recognise it , how it is diagnosed,  treatments or procedures (and alternatives), and after care and quality of life issues associated with the disease or condition?
    For treatment information does it cover: how treatments work, what are their benefits and risks, what are the effects on quality of life, and what is the likely effect of non-treatment?
  • Is the information up-to-date?
    Health information that is more than a couple of years old is suspect, because health information changes so rapidly. If you can’t find a date, look on another site.
  • How easy is the site to use?
    It might contain excellent information, but if you can’t find, you can’t use it.
  • In Canada, one of the most important questions you can ask is: Is the information Canadian?
    Medication information is not the same in Canada as it is in the US: dosage information is never the same, even medication names are different. For medication information, ALWAYS use Canadian information.

You can find a more detailed list of questions on our website. Other website evaluation criteria are also available.

Where can I look for health information?

We have prepared a list of reliable Canadian multi-topic health websites to help guide your search. In addition, we have prepared a list of health sites by topic, and regularly publish a list of our most frequently-asked health questions. We even maintain a list of toll-free (1-800) health phone numbers available in the province of Ontario.

We have also listed and described over xxx reliable websites on Delicious, a social bookmarking website. Click on the title to display the site, or on a “tag” (a descriptive word) to see a list of similar websites.

We also maintain a list of reliable American multi-topic health websites and ofreliable international multi-topic health websites.

Where else can I look for health information?

Public libraries often subscribe to databases, many of which contain the full text of articles in journals, newspapers and other publications. Toronto Public Library subscribes to a number of databases, which are free to use if you have a library card. To find outhow to use these databases and which health databases are available, visit our website.

And, of course, Toronto Public Library offers a huge selection of health books,electronic books, audiobooks and videos, all of which you can borrow for free with your library card.

Too much information?

If you need help sifting through the piles of information on the Internet and elsewhere, your local library can help you. Librarians are experts in finding information.

If you explain exactly what you are looking for and what you hope you can find, a professional librarian can help you narrow down your search and uncover information you might never have expected to find.
Donna MacLeod, for Consumer Health Information ServiceToronto Public Library

Further reading

We maintain a website that can help you find reliable health information:http://chis.wikidot.com/.
This website:

  • points you to reliable websites (CanadianAmericaninternational, or by topic)
  • provides health guides on a number of topics to help you focus your search
  • answers frequently-asked questions
  • provides 1-800 phone numbers for health services and information in Ontario
  • links to lists of articles on various health topics
  • and much more