Three out of four web users say they search for health information online, according to Pew Research. But how can you know if that info is reliable? Anyone can publish a website, and it’s common for online health information to come with another agenda. Want to get rid of belly fat by eating only pomegranates? Or cure your fatigue with this miracle pill? Just click here!
Even popular sources can be suspect. WebMD exists in the first place to make money from advertising, not to fix your ingrown toenail. Recently, researchers found that half of Dr. Oz’s medical advice is baseless or flat-out wrong. Over 40 percent of the students who responded to a recent Student Health 101 survey said they question the reliability of a health source all or most of the time.
Learn what to look for in a health website, and how to recognize red flags. These tips will help you sort the best from the bogus.
How to know a health website is trustworthy
Check out these printable guides for more reliable health sites
Students share: What make you trust a website?
“It’s important that there’s scientific evidence to back up the claims they’re making. I also like when the source recognizes that each person they’re writing for is different.”
—Helen, sophomore, Boston, Massachusetts
“Look at the author’s credentials—if he went to a college or not, his degrees, etc.”
—Isabella, sophomore, Farmington, Connecticut
“I look for three things: One, that they list who sponsors the website and how we could reach them. Depending on their sponsorship, it reflects on the quality of content, and how they’re able to present it. Second, who exactly wrote the information? And finally, I look for whether or not the information written has been reviewed by experts in the field.”
—Cindy, sophomore, Boston, Massachusetts
“If a website ends in .org, .edu, or .gov.”
—Elena, senior, Brooklyn, New York
“How professional the site or organization is. Also, more research is always good to confirm how trustworthy it is.”
—Judy, sophomore, Boston, Massachusetts
“If a website tells me I have a certain illness and the doctor confirms it, then I’ll trust the source in the future.”
—Morgan, freshman, Boston, Massachusetts
Trust the website if it…
Has up-to-date information
- All or most of the content has been created within the past five years.
- Some sites reference older information. This is OK if they are referencing a landmark finding (e.g., the original studies in the 1950s that linked cigarette smoking to lung cancer) or if it’s providing context for a newer study.
- The date the content was most recently updated may be provided at the bottom of the page. Not all websites have dates. If the source is reputable, this is OK.
Has a neutral tone
- No talk of “Miracle cure!” or “Breakthrough!” Science usually advances in small increments. A single study rarely changes everything.
- “Miracle cures,” exclamation marks, and price tags are usually a sales pitch. Don’t fall for it.
Cites scientific literature
- Medical facts are cited and sourced in footnotes or on a sources page.
- The content is based on published research studies by researchers who work with universities or other respected institutions, such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH). 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).
- Ideally, the content is based on a review of many studies, usually called a meta-analysis or systematic review. These analyze data from multiple studies on the same topic. Meta-analyses are much more comprehensive and broadly applicable than any individual study. The Cochrane Collaboration provides systematic reviews.
- The content references studies from a range of sources. If three out of five sources are the work of the same researcher, tread carefully.
- The research cited involved a large number of human participants. If the findings were based on a dozen mice, more research is needed to make any conclusions.
- Articles should acknowledge when research is incomplete or conflicting. Unbalanced articles are often trying to sell a product or belief.
- The source does not assume that correlation equals causation. Correlation is when two things appear to be connected because they both increase at the same time (positive correlation) or because one decreases as the other increases (negative correlation). This is not the same as one thing causing another. For example, there is a correlation between the amount of cheese people consume and the number of people who die by being tangled in their bedsheets (yes, that happens). This does not mean eating cheese causes death by bedsheet, just that they appear to increase at the same rate. Learn more about correlation vs. causation here.
Reputable authors and funding sources are listed
- Reliable sources include government departments, such as NIH, universities, and certain evidence-based journals (e.g., Science).
- There are no obvious conflicts of interest involving the author(s) or the organization that sponsored the research. If the author is a lobbyist in Washington DC, it’s all over.
- To get a better sense of the source, click on About Us or the equivalent web page.
Has plain language
- Trustworthy language is not overly technical. But it shouldn’t be “dumbed down” to the point where it’s not accurate anymore. If they’re trying to blind you with science, keep your eyes wide open.
Only contains links to other reputable sites
- Links should not be to pages asking you to buy something.
- Many reputable sites will not link to other pages at all.
American Heart Association. (2015). Retrieved from https://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/
Caufield-Noll, C. (2012). Finding reliable health information on the internet: Overview of medlineplus.gov. [Slideshow]. Retrieved from https://www.slideshare.net/JHBMC_CHL/medlineplusoverview?next_slideshow=1
Centers for Disease Control. (2014). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov
Cleveland Clinic. (2014). Retrieved from
Cochrane Collaboration. (2015). Retrieved from
EurekAlert. (2014). Educated consumers more likely to use potentially unreliable online healthcare information. Retrieved from https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2014-08/hfae-ecm082714.php
Flaherty, J. (2014). Spotting bogus dietary advice. Tufts Magazine. Retrieved from
Health on the Net Foundation. (2014). About HONcode. Retrieved from https://www.hon.ch/HONcode/Patients/Visitor/visitor.html
Jaffe, A. (2010, March 20). Correlation, causation, and association—what does it all mean??? Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/all-about-addiction/201003/correlation-causation-and-association-what-does-it-all-mean
Mayo Clinic. (2015). Retrieved from https://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 https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2014/12/19half-of-dr-ozs-medical-advice-is-baseless-or-wrong-study-says/
Medline Plus. (2015). Retrieved from https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/
National Cancer Institute. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.cancer.gov
National Cancer Institute. (2012). Evaluating sources of health information. Retrieved from https://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 https://nccam.nih.gov/health/webresources
National Institutes of Health. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.nih.gov
National Library of Medicine. (n.d.). Evaluating internet health information. Retrieved from https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/webeval/webeval_start.html
National Network of Libraries of Medicine. (2014). Evaluating health websites. Retrieved from https://nnlm.gov/outreach/consumer/evalsite.html
NHS Choices. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.nhs.uk/Pages/HomePage.aspx
Patients Like Me. (2015). Retrieved from https://www.patientslikeme.com/
PubMed. (2015). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed
Scholarly Open Access. (2015). Retrieved from https://scholarlyoa.com/publishers/
Science-Based Medicine. (2013). Retrieved from https://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org
Spurious Correlations. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.tylervigen.com/
Student Health 101 survey, August 2016.
United States Food and Drug Administration. (2013). How to evaluate health information on the internet. Retrieved from
University of Connecticut Health Center. (n.d.). Evaluating websites for consumer health information. Retrieved from https://library.uchc.edu/departm/hnet/rbevalwebsite.html