For the purposes of this discussion, the two websites assessed were those of (1): The National Institutes of Health (NIH) – a government site – and (2): MedicineNet, which is a commercially-sponsored source.
Taking the NIH site first, its “About” section explains that it is “the nation’s medical research agency – making important discoveries that improve health and save lives.” It claims that its research has resulted in Americans living longer, and states that most of its budget supports many thousands of research staff. It appears to be a well-maintained site, showing a “last reviewed” date in August 2013. The site’s “Health Information” tab provides access to a number of resources, including a Search facility for information on a number of common illnesses, a guide to talking your doctor (including questions you should ask), a whole series of telephone numbers you can call for help on a wide range of illnesses and diseases, featured health-related articles, a feedback section, and a section on the latest research updates. Overall, the site has many more useful features dependent on your particular perspective or need.
Interestingly, the Home page of the MedicineNet website bears a strong visual resemblance to the Home page of the NIH site, and has an at least as good comprehensive guide to information about illnesses and diseases. However, a fundamental difference between the two sites becomes apparent when accessing information on a disease (e.g. diabetes). The site recommends specific medications (in other words revealing its links to sponsoring commercial organizations). There is no reason to suppose the information provided is not reliable, though it is entirely possible that the recommended medications may not be the most effective or up to date, nor the cheapest options.
In this technological age, health information is available from a vast number of sources including many on the Internet, meaning that any one of us as a consumer can search for health information that might explain symptoms we think we have. The danger is that we can too easily self-diagnose something that turns out to be a different problem entirely. There still is no substitute for consulting a trained medical professional if you believe you have a problem that needs medical attention. Websites are useful to search for information, but should not be depended upon entirely.
If a nurse were to be asked by a patient for advice on seeking health information on the Internet, the criteria for selecting a site for dependable and up to date information would be:
1. That wherever possible, sites to be accessed should not be commercially-motivated; i.e. use sites with addresses ending in “.gov” or “.org” or “.edu”, although the latter two cannot be guaranteed to be as unbiased as the government sites.
2. The information should be up to date. If a site has no copyright date or one that is years old, remember that new developments and treatments come along all the time – out of date advice may not be the best advice.
3. Don’t use a site that requires you to subscribe or acquire membership (even if free). There is a possibility that they sell personal data to other organizations.
4. Be careful if the site has links to social media (e.g. Facebook or Twitter) for online discussion forums, etc. Make sure you understand their policy in that regard, to protect your privacy.
“National Institutes of Health: Turning Discovery Into Health: Health Information.” (Aug 2013). U.S. Department of Health & Human Services: National Institutes of Health. Retrieved from http://health.nih.gov/
“MedicineNet.com: We Bring Doctors’ Knowledge to You.” (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/hp.asp