How Reliable Is Health Information Online? Pew Study Sheds Light

Photograph by Colin Hawkins

Online research for personal medical issues may be a healthy practice.

Looking up your health symptoms on the Internet can be a traumatizing experience. Some websites are riddled with incomplete or inaccurate guidance, leaving you feeling like death is around the corner. Meanwhile, drug companies pitch you with online ads for prescriptions before you’ve even seen a doctor.

So how reliable is the information on the Web for those self-diagnosing their health? According to a new survey conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, 41 percent of respondents who went online to look for information about medical conditions had their diagnoses later validated by a physician. That compares with 18 percent who said the clinician either didn’t agree or offered a different opinion.

However, 35 percent said they chose not to seek medical help, so we don’t know if their digital diagnoses were correct or not.

The survey’s authors say the goal wasn’t to determine whether the Internet has a helpful or harmful effect on health care, but rather to study who looks for health information online.

About one in three U.S. adults have gone online to try to diagnose themselves or others, the report found. Forty-six percent of those who turned to the Web  said the information they found led them to think they needed to seek a medical professional. Those who have advanced degrees and higher incomes are the most likely to look up health conditions on the Internet.

What’s the takeaway for the average patient?

Like everything else on the Web, the study shows that there’s valuable information to be found, if one has the acuity and patience to weed out all the unhelpful sites.


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