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Finding Health Information on the Internet

by Elizabeth M. LaRue, PhD, MLS, AHIP

Do you realize that when you are looking for health information on the Internet, you are searching through 186 million Web sites? Even if you limit your search to sites focusing specifically on health, you are still likely to be looking through millions of sites.

Given the sheer volume of health information online, how do you find the specific information you need? And once you find it, how do you determine whether the source of the information is reliable?

As more and more people are turning to the Internet for health information, and as the Internet continues to expand, these questions take on greater and greater importance. This article describes some ways to streamline your Internet searching and to evaluate the trustworthiness of the Web sites you visit.

Awards and seals
Many Web sites display images of awards or trophies along the sides or at the bottom of the home page. While they may suggest quality, many such awards are given for good design or other, stylistic aspects of the site, not for quality or reliability of information.

The one seal that does indicate that the contents of a health site have been reviewed by medical professionals (unless clearly stated otherwise on the site) is the HONcode, which stands for Health on the Net Foundation Code of Conduct. (See the footer of this Web page for an example of this seal.) To have a Web site reviewed, the Web site author or designer must complete a set of Web site design and content principles established by the HONcode foundation. Among other things, the Web site must indicate the qualifications of the authors, state where the information came from (such as published research studies), and provide evidence supporting any claims relating to the benefits or performance of a particular treatment, product, or service.

To prove that the principles have been met, an application for review and approval to display the HONcode seal on the Web site is made online through HONcode. Any Web site showing the HONcode seal means the Web site was approved by the foundation and met its design and content principles.

The HONcode Web site, www.hon.ch/HONcode, has several searchable databases to help consumers find information on a variety of medical topics. To use these databases, click on “HONsearch” on the home page. You will have the option of searching just Web sites that are HONcode certified or broadening your search to include certified and noncertified sites.

If you find a Web site you like that does not display the HONcode seal, be careful about trusting the health information presented. It may be a good site, but it would be wise to double-check the information on other Web sites or printed resources.

Health information portals
To filter the 186 million active Web sites into something more manageable for individual users, various organizations have built health information portals. A portal may be structured as a directory and provide a listing of health Web sites, or it may be a search engine that searches only Web sites with health information. Some health portals provide a combination of these features. And some additionally compile health information from a variety of sources and present it directly on the site. The information presented in or linked to by a health information portal is reviewed for quality information, so you can feel confident about using it.

Portals with directories generally organize their lists of Web sites alphabetically or categorically. For example, Healthfinder.gov (www. healthfinder.gov/HealthAtoZ) organizes links to information on more than 1,600 health-related topics alphabetically by category. Clicking on a category heading leads to a page of links to relevant Web pages.

A quick way to navigate when using a health information directory is to use the hierarchical path that is displayed at the top of the page. For instance, on Healthfinder.gov, “Health A to Z” is an option to click on the home page. If “A” is selected, all the health subjects beginning with “A” appear, and the hierarchical path “Home > Health A–Z >” shows at the top of the page. If “Anemia” is then selected as the subject of interest, links to Web pages presenting information on anemia appear, and the path at the top of the page reads “Home > Health A–Z > A >.” To go back to a page visited previously, just click on it in the hierarchical path (rather than clicking your browser’s “back” button).

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