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Scouring the internet to help you get to the bottom of your stomachache or that sudden rash is commonplace these days. Seven out of ten people say they look for health information online, according to a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center. While Google can be a useful tool, relying too heavily on the web for health info is risky—how do you know if the information you’re getting is reliable?

More than half of students who responded to a Student Health 101 survey said they question the reliability of a health information source at least twice a week. Here’s how to know what to look for in a health website and recognize red flags so you can sort the best from the bogus.

On the infographic below, click on each sign to learn how to tell the difference. 

Is this health site trustworthy or unreliable infographic

Uses plain languageAcknowledges uncertainties and unknownsBased on a meta-analysis of multiple studies

Cites peer-reviewed, published medical studiesContent largely created within the last five yearsCites studies involving lots of human participantsPacked with scientific-sounding jargonBreakthrough! Miracle cure! Exclamation points!Few sourcesBiased funding sourceSources generally older than five years

Cites studies involving a dozen mice

Uses plain languageAcknowledges uncertainties and unknownsBased on a meta-analysis of multiple studiesCites peer-reviewed, published medical studiesContent largely created within the last five yearsCites studies involving lots of human participants

Is this health site trustworthy or unreliable? How to tell the difference

"Eating lots of veggies helps protect against cancer, studies suggest" vs. "Superfood in a pill! Amazing results! Totally sciency! $29.95/month"

Trustworthy

  • Uses plain language
  • Acknowledges uncertainties and unknowns
  • Based on a meta-analysis of multiple studies
  • Cites perr-reviewed, published medical studies
  • Content largely created within the last five years
  • Cites studies involving lots of human participants

Bogus

  • Packed with scientific-sounding jargon
  • Breakthrough! Miracle cure! Exclamation points!
  • Few sources
  • Biased funding source
  • Sources generally older than five years
  • Cites studies involving a dozen mice

Plain language

What to look for

Trustworthy language isn’t overly technical. But it shouldn’t be “dumbed down” to the point where it isn’t accurate anymore, says Dr. Niket Sonpal, associate program director of the Internal Medicine Residency at Brookdale University Hospital and Medical Center in New York. 

Example

“According to the findings, eating nuts on a regular basis strengthens brainwave frequencies associated with cognition, healing, learning, memory, and other key brain functions. In other words, they help boost your brain power.” 

Red flag: Scientific-y jargon

You don’t want the terms to be so technical that you can’t understand them—if you can’t understand what it’s saying, or if it sounds like your kid sister is playing doctor, look for another resource.

Student voice

“My professors have told me that it should be explained as if you were explaining it to your grandmother (given that she isn’t a research scientist!).”
—Sonya M., fourth-year undergraduate, Northern Illinois University

Acknowledges uncertainties

What to look for

The info should acknowledge when research is incomplete or conflicting. “Sometimes, caveats are what make a claim truly applicable or not,” says Dr. Sonpal. Unbalanced articles are often trying to sell a product or belief.

Example

“The groundbreaking study found that adopting a confident posture can actually change your brain chemistry; however, similar studies have been unable to replicate those results so far.”

Red flag: Miracle cures and price tags

Miracle cures and so on are usually a sales pitch. Don’t fall for it. “Any article claiming a miracle cure that isn’t already a part of the evidence-based clinical guidelines set forth by a medical society should always be considered suspect,” says Dr. Sonpal. On that note, also look out for price tags. “Online health information should always be free—if an article is charging you for free information, it’s likely off,” Dr. Sonpal says.

Student voices

“I tend to stay away from websites or articles that are backed by certain diet movements, such as the vegan or paleo diet groups, because they tend to be biased towards that lifestyle and only present data to glorify them. This skewing of data and misrepresentation of results is misleading.”
—Lucas J., second-year undergraduate, Marian University, Indiana

“Accurate science usually doesn’t come packaged with a clickbait headline like ‘You won’t believe…’ or  ’18 simple tricks that will surprise you.’”
—Elliece R., third-year undergraduate, University of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada

Based on a meta-analysis or systematic review

What to look for

Ideally, you want the content to be based on a meta-analysis or systematic review. These analyze data from many studies on the same topic. Meta-analyses are much more comprehensive and broadly applicable than any individual study. 

Example

“A meta-analysis of 37 studies conducted over the past five years concluded that practicing mindfulness and meditation does in fact help reduce depression.”

Red flag: Few sources

Reliable health information is based on large, broadly applicable bodies of research. If the majority of the sources are the work of the same researcher or only apply to one very specific group (such as elite runners or grandmas in rural areas), tread carefully.

Student voice

“I like seeing statistics and reviews. I also research many different articles/reports and compare their information to see what sorts of things overlap.”
—Joree S., fourth-year undergraduate, South Dakota School of Mines and Technology

Cites peer-reviewed, published medical studies

What to look for

If it isn’t based on a meta-analysis or accredited review, the health content should at least be based on a peer-reviewed study done by researchers affiliated with universities or other respected institutions, such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH). 

Example

“According to a joint research effort between Harvard and Johns Hopkins, regular aerobic exercise promotes longevity.

Red flag: Biased funding source

Be wary of research sponsored by an organization that has an interest in the outcome (e.g., a study on soda and obesity sponsored by the soft drinks industry).

There should be no obvious conflicts of interest involving the author(s) or the organization(s) that sponsored the research. Additionally, the content shouldn’t assume that correlation equals causation. For example, researchers may find that people who do trampoline workouts have more joint problems. But that doesn’t mean trampolines cause joint problems—those jumpers might also be marathon runners.

Student voice

“I’m a nurse, so I look at [articles] with a critical eye. There are certain articles that are produced to get clicks, and there are some articles that are backed by science and logic. These aren’t always one and the same.”
—Erick M.*, second-year graduate student, University of North Dakota

Up-to-date information

What to look for

All or most of the content has been created within the past five years. “Many times, the medical community has been wrong or has advanced so much that old treatments are almost considered barbaric and archaic,” says Dr. Sonpal. 

Example

Scientists have been studying the benefits of exercise on depression since the 1970s, but a 2017 study that explored running as a treatment for depression made the case even more compelling.”

Red flag: Old sources

Some websites cite older information. This is OK if it’s a reputable source, like a university medical school, and it’s referencing a landmark finding, such as “smoking causes cancer.” Make sure the older research is paired with recent studies that expand upon or refine it. “If old studies are the only ones cited, that’s concerning, but if it’s a mix, that’s usually fine,” says Dr. Sonpal.

Student voice

“Trustworthy sites will work to keep the data as up to date as possible.”
—Rebekah S., sixth-year undergraduate, Rowan University, New Jersey

Human participants (and many of them)

What to look for

Ideally, the research cited will have involved a large number of human participants. If the findings were only based on a dozen mice, the information can’t be applied to humans yet. “Animal studies should always be considered the beta version of clinical information—they’re the step before human studies,” says Dr. Sonpal. 

Example

“To test the effects of sleep deprivation on school performance, researchers recruited 500 high school and college students and had them keep sleep journals for two months.”

Red flag: Cites studies using animals (especially small sample sizes)

“What happens in a rat won’t necessarily happen in us, especially if it was just one rat—we need to see it happen in larger studies,” says Dr. Sonpal.

American Heart Association

  • Tips on healthy living, such as stress management and weight management
  • Information on heart-related medical conditions
  • Information for caregivers and educators 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

  • Information on diseases, healthy living, travel health, and emergency preparedness from the US government
  • Contains a wealth of data on different health conditions and topics such as occupational health and global health
  • Vital Signs monthly report highlights recent studies and advances in public health
  • Contains official government recommendations and warnings on everything from tattoos to tuberculosis 

Cleveland Clinic

  • Consistently rated one of the best hospital systems in the US
  • Information on diseases and conditions
  • Information on drugs and other treatments
  • Healthy living tips, including nutrition and exercise
  • Provides a free health and wellness newsletter site that visitors can subscribe to

Cochrane Collaboration

  • An independent network of researchers, professionals, patients, caregivers, and other people interested in health
  • Summarizes the latest research to help you make the best health choices

Health on the Net Foundation (HONcode)

  • A nongovernment organization that promotes an “ethical standard” for quality health care information
  • Websites can apply to be HONcode certified and will display an HONcode badge if they’re approved
  • HONcode isn’t in consistent use across the internet, but if you see it on a site, you can count on that site to have reliable information

Mayo Clinic

  • Consistently rated one of the best hospital systems in the US
  • Information on diseases, symptoms, treatments, procedures, and medications
  • Symptom checker feature

Medline Plus

  • From the US National Library of Medicine
  • Information on various health topics, medications, and supplements
  • Videos on topics such as surgery and anatomy, as well as interactive tutorials
  • Games, quizzes, and calculators (for BMI, breast cancer risk, etc.)

National Cancer Institute

  • A government organization, part of the NIH
  • Information on different types of cancer, including the latest clinical trials
  • Statistics for different types of cancer, including overall rates and demographic breakdowns
  • Information on treatment, prevention, coping with cancer

NHS Choices

  • From the UK’s National Health Service
  • Information on diseases, treatments, and healthy living
  • Symptom checker feature
  • Hosts online communities for questions, support, and advice
  • Each month’s “online clinic” answers questions on a particular health topic
  • “Behind the Headlines” guides readers through the science behind health news

Patients Like Me

  • Online, disease-specific communities where over 600,000 members share stories and advice on over 2,800 conditions
  • Free place to discuss symptoms and treatment options and ask experts questions
  • Sells anonymous health data to companies and nonprofits developing health care products to help them understand the real-world experience of disease and treatment

PubMed

  • Collection of over 24 million medical- and health-related studies from the National Library of Medicine, life science journals, and online books
  • You can search by topic, type of study, publication date, and free full-text availability

Student Health 101

  • Evidence-based content on a variety of health topics
  • Reviewed by health and wellness experts
  • Tailored to your school

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What was the most interesting thing you read in this article?

If you could change one thing about Student Health 101, what would it be?

HAVE YOU SEEN AT LEAST ONE THING IN THIS ISSUE THAT...

..you will apply to everyday life?

..caused you to get involved, ask for help,
utilize campus resources, or help a friend?

Tell us more.
How can we get more people to read Student Health 101?
First Name:

Last Name:

E-mail:

Phone Number:



HAVE YOU SEEN AT LEAST ONE THING IN THIS ISSUE THAT...

..you will apply to everyday life?

..caused you to get involved, ask for help,
utilize campus resources, or help a friend?

Tell us more.
How can we get more people to read Student Health 101?

First Name:

Last Name:

E-mail:

Phone Number:




Article sources

Niket Sonpal, MD, associate program director of the Internal Medicine Residency at Brookdale University Hospital and Medical Center in New York.

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Belluz, J., & Hoffman, S. (2015, March 11). Stop Googling your health questions: Use these sites instead. Vox. Retrieved from http://www.vox.com/2014/9/8/6005999/why-you-should-never-use-dr-google-to-search-for-health-information

Caufield-Noll, C. (2012). Finding reliable health information on the internet: Overview of medlineplus.gov. [Slideshow]. Retrieved from http://www.slideshare.net/JHBMC_CHL/medlineplusoverview?next_slideshow=1

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2014). [Website]. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov

Cleveland Clinic. (2014). [Website]. Retrieved from http://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/healthy_living

Cochrane Library. (2015). [Website]. Retrieved from http://www.cochranelibrary.org/

EurekAlert. (2014). Educated consumers more likely to use potentially unreliable online healthcare information. Retrieved from http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2014-08/hfae-ecm082714.php

Flaherty, J. (2014). Spotting bogus dietary advice. Tufts Magazine. Retrieved from

http://www.tufts.edu/alumni/magazine/fall2014/discover/dietary_advice.html

Health on the Net Foundation. (2014). About HONcode. [Website]. Retrieved from http://www.hon.ch/HONcode/Patients/Visitor/visitor.html

Mayo Clinic. (2015). [Website]. Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org

McCoy, T. (2014, December 19). Half of Dr. Oz’s medical advice is baseless or wrong, study says. Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2014/12/19half-of-dr-ozs-medical-advice-is-baseless-or-wrong-study-says/

Medline Plus. (2015). [Website]. Retrieved from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/

National Cancer Institute. (n.d.). [Website]. Retrieved from http://www.cancer.gov

National Cancer Institute. (2012). Evaluating sources of health information. [Website]. Retrieved from http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/cancerlibrary/health-info-online

National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. (2013). Finding and evaluating online resources on complementary health approaches. Retrieved from http://nccam.nih.gov/health/webresources

National Institutes of Health. (n.d.). [Website]. Retrieved from http://www.nih.gov

National Library of Medicine. (n.d.). Evaluating internet health information. Retrieved from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/webeval/webeval_start.html

National Network of Libraries of Medicine. (2014). Evaluating health websites. Retrieved from http://nnlm.gov/outreach/consumer/evalsite.html

NHS Choices. (n.d.). [Website]. Retrieved from http://www.nhs.uk/

Patients Like Me. (2015). [Website]. Retrieved from http://www.patientslikeme.com/

PubMed. (2015). [Website]. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed

Scholarly Open Access. (2015). [Website]. Retrieved from http://scholarlyoa.com/publishers/

Science-Based Medicine. (2013). [Website]. Retrieved from http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org

Spurious Correlations. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.tylervigen.com/

University of Connecticut Health Center. (n.d.). Evaluating websites for consumer health information. Retrieved from http://library.uchc.edu/departm/hnet/rbevalwebsite.html

US Food and Drug Administration. (2013). How to evaluate health information on the internet. Retrieved from http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/BuyingUsingMedicineSafely/BuyingMedicinesOvertheInternet/ucm202863.htm