According to the Pew Research Center, up to 75 percent of adults have searched online for health-related information in the last year.
Yet, sometimes, online searching results in inaccurate information.
So, how much should you trust the health information you read online?
That depends, says Sarah White, adult services librarian at the Eugene Public Library, who spoke on this topic earlier this year.
The library is among just a handful nationwide that offer such presentations, although libraries make up more than 60 percent of free public access to computers, and nine out of 10 Americans have reported difficulty understanding the health-related information they receive.
In her presentation, White gave details about many trustworthy sources and how to evaluate a website’s credibility.
“I use this presentation as a chance to highlight the health-related resources we have at the library,” White says. “We have a subject guide on our website that was built to put together great information on a bunch of heath conditions. We also have general resources where people can look up general information, more like a reference, on their health conditions.”
This Health and Wellness category links to the Health and Wellness Resource Center online, which requires either a library card to access the site from home or by using a computer at the library.
It provides a list of health-related topics for anyone who works outside the medical profession.
Some resources, such as the “Gale Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine,” require a library card for access, but the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website does not require a library card to search health topics.
Get access to resources such as the “Mayo Clinic Book of Home Remedies” or find local health resources, such as the state’s Senior Health Insurance Benefits Program (SHIBA), which provides assistance from an Oregon-wide network of trained volunteers for those enrolling in Medicare.
There is also a list of free downloadable health and wellness ebooks and audiobooks. Even more, the library pays for subscriptions to some sites so its patrons will not have to do it on their own. Using a library card or a library computer gives you access to those sites at no additional charge.
Find credible info
White recommends trustworthy websites such as Med- linePlus.gov, from the National Library of Medicine.
“It’s a government site, it’s authoritative and current, and it has a really wide variety of different resources on health topics, drugs and supplements,” White says. “Everything is written for the consumer in a very accessible way. They don’t use a lot of jargon. They also have a lot of videos on there so it’s just a good, comprehensive website.”
Government-affiliated sites are more trustworthy than sites selling something, White says, so be on the lookout for a site’s motives when you pay a visit.
Many sites purport to be health-related, but anyone can create a website. Often times, they are selling a product, or linking to sites that do.
“Thinking about the purpose of the website is one good criterion to use to tell if a site is trustworthy or not, because a lot of sites are trying to sell something,” she says. “What’s their purpose for putting up that site and is that affecting their credibility or the information they’re giving out?”
Look at the credentials of the person who created the site or published the information, White says. If they don’t have a great expertise on the topic, perhaps it’s best to take their information with a grain of salt.
“A salesperson will always try to make their product sound like the best product,” she says.
If searching online is not your thing, the library, as you might expect, has a great collection of print books on a wide variety of medical topics. Use your library card to explore the library’s online catalog. If a book is currently checked out, use your library card to place a hold on it and reserve it for when it becomes available.
“In general, if people are interested in finding information, they can always ask for help from a librarian and we can connect them with good resources online or from books in the collections,” White says.
The technology culprit
Searching for information just isn’t as simple as it used to be.
Look up information about diabetes, for example, and expect to get a lot more than you asked for.
That’s because websites often target people for advertising based on sites they visit or things they search for online.
When a browser (such as Chrome or Safari) connects to a website, the website might generate a unique piece of information for each visitor and store the piece of information on each visitor’s computer.
These packets of information are called “cookies.” They are not harmful to your computer, but they are pervasive. If you’re familiar enough with your computer’s settings, you can control what sites place cookies on your computer and you can delete them.
The value of the cookie to the website is that once it gives your browser a cookie, the website knows your computer has visited that site at least once. It can use this information to show you ads for their products or services, even if you’re on other websites or other platforms.
So, when you searched for information about diabetes, then visited another site, such as Facebook or your email, you’re likely to see an ad for the site you just visited or for totally different, but related, products.
Some sites can sell this cookie information to third-party advertisers. While you originally visited a site about diabetes, you may start getting ads for compression socks, an insulin checker or other diabetes-related products, even if you never searched for them.
The bottom line is not to be fooled by ads. Seeing advertising and then researching the products on your own is a great way to learn new things. But these third-party ads may be for products that aren’t reliable, aren’t endorsed by health care providers or may not even do anything at all.
Be an aware consumer and remember that sometimes you’re seeing ads for products that may not be what they claim to be.