Become a Health Detective: Using the Internet Wisely

| Posted On Feb 19, 2013 | By:

online health infoOn a typical day, millions of people type “back pain,” “migraine,” or some other troubling symptom into an Internet search engine. Almost 60% of Americans searched for health information online last year.  Are you one of them? Do you sometimes feel overwhelmed at the amount of information that is on the Web? In this age of instant communication, we are bombarded with “facts” (which may or may not be accurate), as well as opinions and suggestions (which may or may not be helpful), not just from the Web, but also from television, magazines, and newspapers. We also often hear well-intentioned—but often misinformed—advice from friends, family, and co-workers.

How should you make sense of it all? How can you sort out fiction from fact, and glean what is really relevant to your condition? We can’t help you with Aunt Edna’s advice, and mass media presents a glut of information through an overwhelming number of avenues.  We can, however, help you become a savvy consumer of Internet health resources.

Finding the Most Reliable Health Web Sites

After you type in your question or topic, you will see a list of relevant Internet sites. Instead of clicking on the first one or two, begin by doing some screening.  You can do this by looking first at the URL (Web address). Some of the most reliable sites end with “.gov” (for government agencies), and “.edu” (for academic medical centers — the best of which are associated with major medical schools like Harvard or Stanford).  You can also look for national organizations that pertain to the condition you are interested in, and these will end with “.org.”  Most—but not all—of these (such as the American Heart Association) are non-profit organizations.

In addition to these three types of web domains, there is certainly reliable information available on sites with other types of URLs.  For any of these, you will need to visit the site itself to validate it.  Check for the following:

Evaluating Web-based Information

Once you are satisfied with the site itself, it is time to look more closely at the information you are reading:

Protecting Yourself

Even the most beautiful, perfectly organized, well-written Web site may contain incorrect—or even harmful—information. The best way to protect yourself is to speak with your Harvard Vanguard healthcare provider. It is important that your provider be aware of everything you are doing for your health. An herb that you found online, for example, may have dangerous interactions with a prescription medicine you are taking. So please communicate with us!

Be aware also that a little information can sometimes be more dangerous than none at all. Surfing the web for a health problem you are having can sometimes lead to a “do-it-yourself diagnosis.”  We welcome your questions, and appreciate your investment in your own care.  However, please bear in mind that your health care providers trained for many years to diagnose illness properly.  Your research, coupled with their expertise, should help with understanding your health problems, and finding the best treatment.

Getting Started on the Web

If you do decide to look on the Web for health information, here are some reputable Web sites to start you off:

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About Dr. David Rubin

Dr. David Rubin joined Atrius Health in 2005. He practices adult internal medicine at our Wellesley office. Prior to his career in medicine, he worked with an interactive advertising and marketing agency designing web sites for companies such as AT&T and John Hancock. His interests include preventive medicine, medical informatics, and clinical process improvement.


  1. This is the best article that has appeared in HVMA Health Matters — ever! I had figured out some of this myself by trial and error, not the best way. I am happy to see the website I usually gravitate to is at the top of Dr. Rubin’s list (Mayo Clinic — extremely easy to use). I also just found out by trial and error how good the CDC website is on the topic of the flu vaccine, especially the issue of this year’s vaccine’s failure to protect seniors very well. Thank you for writing this and for publishing it. Now to figure out how to save it so I can pass it along to friends and relatives.

    Comment by Astrid Dodds on February 27, 2013 at 11:11 pm
  2. Great advice about good use of public sources. This site should follow this advice, too. Over at another Harvard Vanguard blog on “A Mid-Winter Clean Eating Challenge” I posted the following comment. Let’s see if it survives moderation either here or there:

    In all fairness, “there is no scientific evidence that these diets are helpful” also applies to this “clean eating challenge” diet. It might be a good combination or might not, but the diet itself has not been subject to controlled studies. Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables is sound advice, but the notion that any such regimen can “clear the body of toxins” has no scientific basis. This site should follow the advice of its own blogger Dr. David Rubin about becoming a “health detective.” “The principles of [dietary detoxification] make no sense from a scientific perspective and there is no clinical evidence to support them.” (Br. Med. Bull.)

    Comment by Larry Constantine (Lior Samson) on February 28, 2013 at 7:15 am

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