When Google Isn’t the Answer

by Elizabeth on March 24, 2011 · 4 comments

in health information, links ahoy, medical libraries

Picture this: You’ve just been diagnosed with a disorder you are unfamiliar with or given a prescription for a medication you’ve never heard of.  The doctor is too busy to answer your questions or you feel intimidated so you don’t ask.  You get home, boot up your computer, and Google your disorder or medication.  Immediately, you become terrified and/or convinced you are going to drop dead any minute.

Sound familiar?

In this day and age of instant web access and the ease of finding readily available information on the web, many patients choose to research their own diseases or medications and don’t bother to ask the doctor any questions.  Sometimes people even self-diagnose online.  We’ve all heard, probably more times than we can count, that the internet doesn’t always have the most reliable information or that we shouldn’t trust what we read online, but, generally, especially when it comes to health information, we ignore that.

This is a very bad decision.

Why is it bad?  Because more likely than not, the information you are getting was written by a drug company or is written by someone who received money from a drug company to write that information.  And that drug company, and therefore that author, does not have your best interests in mind.  Drug companies exist to manufacture drugs to help sick people, but they also exist to make money.  So it’s best to keep that in mind when researching health information online.

Okay, you say.  Great points.  But how do I know what websites are reliable and which ones aren’t?  There are a few that I use most often and trust (as a librarian and as someone who works in a hospital) as the most valid sites on general health information.

Medline Plus
Medline Plus is run by the National Institute of Health (our tax dollars hard at work) and is designed for patients and their families and friends.  It is written at a lower literacy rate (usually between 4th and 6th grades) and has information about diseases/disorders, drugs, interactive tutorials and videos, and a medical dictionary.  If you are looking for basic information on a health topic, in my opinion, this should be your first stop.

Mayo Clinic
The Mayo Clinic runs a health information section of their website designed to help patients.  It’s written a slightly higher reading level than Medline Plus and does contain advertisements, but it has some really interesting features like articles on living a healthy lifestyle and a variety of newsletters.

PubMed Health
These days, if you Google a disease or a drug, the first entry is likely to be from PubMed health.  PubMed Health is a consumer health site produced by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), a division of the National Library of Medicine (NLM).  It has a higher reading level than the government’s other consumer health site (Medline Plus), but it goes into more detail.  PubMed Health is likely to have information on recent studies and clinical trials, and links to external (but valid) resources, including medical journal articles.  It focuses on comparative effectiveness research in which the experts to pull information from a variety of sources and presents the pros and cons.

Cleveland Clinic
Much like the Mayo Clinic, the Cleveland Clinic has an excellent patient information section.  My favorite section is the Online Learning Center which has multi-media content on specific diseases and treatments. There are no advertisements on Cleveland Clinic’s site.

I would say these are biggest and most reliable general health information websites.  But sometimes you aren’t looking for something general or basic; you need something comprehensive on a specific subject.  In that case, I do suggest doing a Google search.  However, it is crucial to pay attention to the website.  Your best bets are sites that end in .org or .edu as they are nonprofits and won’t have advertisements, which, as we discussed earlier, means that they probably aren’t looking out for the patient.

You should also check who the company, institute, or organization is.  Look at their about page, their physicians, their publications.  If they don’t have any of that information out in the open, then they probably are not legitimate and you should move on.  It’s not difficult to find good and reliable health information on the web, you just have to know where to look.

Where do you look for health information?  Do you have any questions on evaluating health information websites?

Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional, just a medical librarian.  I am by no means an expert on any of this.  These are merely suggestions of where I think you should look for health information on the web.  I am not responsible for any incorrect or misleading information you find online. 

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 alcarpenter March 24, 2011 at 9:03 pm

I always tell my computer class students to use MedlinePlus 🙂


2 patienceamber March 25, 2011 at 1:41 pm

thank you for this, because i am the queen of computer self-diagnoses!! now i have more credible sources and don't have to work myself into a tizzy!!


3 LibGirl09 March 28, 2011 at 10:12 pm

Thanks for this post. This info will come in handy for some of the computer classes I will be teaching.


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