Web sites make it easy for individuals to find facts on just about any health-related condition. However, illegitimate claims on some for-profit commercial Web sites make it just as easy to succumb to bogus health information.

You may not be able to judge a book by its cover, but you can judge the legitimacy of a Web site by its content.

Web sites make it easy for individuals to find facts on just about any health-related condition. However, illegitimate claims on some for-profit commercial Web sites make it just as easy to succumb to bogus health information.

With pages of health research a mere mouse click away, physicians have advice for Internet users on ways to distinguish valid health information online from commercial-based scams. 

What to avoid

Dr. Don W. Scott, an associate professor of internal medicine and a geriatrician at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, says there are several ways to evaluate the legitimacy of a Web site.

“If any Web site is trying to sell you something or if there’s a fee involved, that’s something to be skeptical about,” he says. “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

Internet users also should be cautious of how Web sites manage interactions with visitors. Those who participate in chat groups may have limited or no medical credentials.

Scott also said Web sites that are likely to post illegitimate information include “any site on which there is a product involved, a service involved or they want your personal information.” 

What to look for

Web site users also can judge a site according to its address.

Scott says government Web sites ending in “.gov” post reliable health information. So do sites ending in “.org,” which tend to be related to nonprofit and teaching institutions.

Examples of companies with Web sites ending in “.org” are The American Cancer Society (www.cancer.org) and The American Heart Association (www.americanheart.org) — organizations that raise money for research into diseases, but also teach the public about research results, how diseases are treated, and how to prevent diseases.

Web sites ending in “.edu” predominantly are trustworthy sources of health information because they are either based at universities or affiliated with universities. The SIU School of Medicine Web site at www.siumed.edu is one example.

Be more careful with Web addresses ending in “.com,” a general designation for a for-profit entity.

Some “.com” Web sites offer reliable, accurate, scientifically proven health information.

“If it’s a hospital entity — a legitimate-appearing hospital site (ending in “.com”) — you can have more confidence in it,” Scott says.

What if you aren’t sure?

Dr. Christina Ventress, a physician at Family Medical Center in Chatham, Ill., says the safest way to avoid succumbing to false information is to inquire about a Web site’s content through a family physician. She says the Web sites for the American Academy of Family Physicians (www.aafp.org/online/en/home.html) and WebMD (www.webmd.com) are legitimate sources.

Web sites such as Health on the Net Foundation (www.hon.ch) can help guide Internet users to health information that is understandable and trustworthy. The National Institute of Health (www.nih.gov) includes information on almost every health topic. In addition, the National Library of Medicine’s Medline Plus (www.medlineplus.gov) contains information on more than 700 health-related topics.

Ventress advises patients to print any information they find online that appears questionable and to ask their doctor for an opinion.

“A Web site funded by a pharmaceutical company obviously will be a little biased toward their drug,” she says.

Dangers of self-diagnosis

According to a study published in 2006 in The Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, 74 percent of people who had access to the Internet searched online for health information. The most-searched topic was information about diseases.

The dangers of self-diagnosis leave little room for consumer mishaps in the health industry. Health on the Net Foundation shares advice on how patients can talk to their doctors about specific symptoms that may appear mild but are actually indicators of a serious disease.

Patients also may visit www.wrongdiagnosis.com., a site that allows users to type in a symptom and receive both common and uncommon diagnoses, and misdiagnoses. Visiting a search engine and typing in “how to talk to your doctor” is also helpful.

“The questions you ask (your doctor) are as important as the answers you receive,” Scott says.

A patient’s history, medications, social and psychological situation, physical examination, and other lab tests can contribute to a correct diagnosis. All in all, more and more patients are becoming involved with developing an understanding of specific diagnoses.

 “We’re in an era where physicians are not necessarily put on pedestals," Scott says. “I definitely see more people come in and ask questions and ask about information they found on the Internet.”

Government protection

The Food and Drug Administration helps protect consumers with a Web site devoted to buying medicines and medical products online At www.fda.gov/buyonline, consumers can get advice, updates about fraudulent companies, and general tips for shopping online.

The Federal Trade Commission enforces laws that protect consumers and investigates complaints about misleading health information posted on the commission’s Operation Cure-All page (www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/edcams/cureall).

The State Journal-Register