PhotoThe Internet is a wonderful thing. All kinds of information is at your fingertips. Twenty-five years ago getting that information might have required a trip to your local library.

But if you happen to consult the Internet on health issues, rather than talking them over with your doctor, you might be making a big mistake.

University of Florida (UF) researchers have surveyed the quality of health information on the Internet and found some of it lacking. In fact, depending on where you look, the information you find could be hazardous to your health.

Let's start with how you search for information. In most cases you probably go to a search engine and type in the name of what you're looking for – ear infections, for example.

The broader the topic, the better

The search results for this relatively broad topic might, in fact, provide high quality information. High quality, because it comes from respected sources like the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Mayo Clinic or Harvard Medical School.

But let's suppose you were interested in more specialized and esoteric topics, like vaccines for newborn. When the the UF researchers searched that term, they got links to blogs and forums that discuss delaying or refusing medically recommended vaccinations.

The opinions, for the most part, were not posted by doctors but just ordinary people. True, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but when taking advice about your health, it might be nice if the advisor at least went to medical school.

Be discriminating

“Based on these results, health consumers and patients may feel assured that they can find some high-quality health information when using a search engine,” said study co-author Christopher A. Harle. “However, consumers and patients should know that searches for some health topics, such as nutrition or fitness, may result in more information that is potentially lower quality.”

We thought we would try it ourselves, searching the relatively broad term “knee pain.” Sure enough, the second entry in the search string was from the Mayo Clinic and the fourth from NIH.

However, there were three paid search placements at the very top of the page, none of which seemed quite as credible. All three were clearly marked as advertisements and consumers seeking unbiased health information should consider them as such.

Next we searched for information about nutritional supplements. Here, the results were mixed.

The first link in the search list was for GNC, a retailer that sells supplements. However, the second entry was for the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) page on the subject.

Widely used health source

The Pew Research Center says 59% of American adults look for health information online, and 6 out of 10 people in this group report that their most recent search influenced their health-related decisions.

This troubles the UF researchers because of the way consumers tend to look at search results. Users usually focus on results listed on the first page of a search.

Because of that,the researchers say, consumers may be more likely to find erroneous information if search engines rank lower-quality websites higher.

“Inaccurate or misleading results could lead people to ignore important symptoms and delay or even refuse recommended health care,” said Brent Kitchens, the study’s lead author. “Low-quality results could also lead people to seek unnecessary health care or implement unproven or potentially harmful at-home treatments.”

The health information available on the Internet can be helpful for exploring symptoms and researching treatments. But the information gathered online shouldn't be used for self-diagnosis, the researchers say.

Rather, it should help start a conversation with your physician.

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