Monday, February 9, 2009

5 simple search strategies to find quality health information on the Internet

Copywrite Peter Yellowlees MD. 2009

Approximately 10 million people in the USA search online for information about their health, or the health of their loved ones, every single day. 140 million Americans have already undertaken such searches. A number of recent studies have reviewed this activity and three factors stand out:

1. Searching on the Internet for health information is a remarkably common activity in America
2. While many people find health information that seems helpful, most do not really know if it is reliable.
3. People trust doctors to deliver high quality health information, and information from the internet discussed with doctors, who are the “health information experts” often leads to changes in treatment.

As a practicing physician I have long been recommending certain websites and search strategies to my patients. I have now written a book (Your Health in the Information Age – how you and your doctor can use the Internet to work together) and created a website that will be helpful in finding high quality health information. The website - –contains the links to high quality health information mentioned in the book.

So what are the 5 search strategies?

1. Quick and dirty.

For a quick simple search there is nothing wrong with doing rapid searches at or , and at least scan the first 20 or so results. Just remember that Google displays two types of results, sites ranked by a commercially secret algorithmically derived measure of popularity, which is what most people look at first, and sponsored paid links. The second quick and dirty approach to undertake routinely is to go to a couple of quality information sites as your first stop beyond the search engines. I recommend the amazing open source encyclopedia with great breadth and depth, but a level of inaccuracy, and which is a Government run site and is, in my opinion, the best overall consumer health site on the Internet.

Many patients want to go beyond this level of search however, and I would suggest the following strategies;

2 Professional journal searching

There are several free programs on the Internet which allow you to search professional peer-reviewed scientific papers from the health and medical journals. The two main professional databases are:
“Medline” ( at the NIH and
“Psycinfo” ( at the American Psychological Association

3 Search evaluated Internet subject gateways

The beauty of Internet searches is that you can pick up useful reliable information which hasn’t always been published in peer-reviewed journals, but which has been checked for accuracy by teams of medical reviewers. The gateways I use are the US National Library of Medicine ( ) or Healthfinder ( ) in the US, or Intute ( ) or NHSDirect ( ) in the UK. Other sites are devoted to collecting peer-reviewed “best practice” treatment guidelines ( ) which you can use to compare with your own treatment regime. If you want information on evidence-based medicine you cannot go past the Cochrane Library ( ) and I frequently recommend eMedicine ( which is emerging as the “wikipedia of healthcare”.

4 General Web searches

Now we move to the open areas of the Internet that you will find via search engines. Here you will have to start questioning the quality of the information you retrieve much more critically as most of it will not have been subjected to any real quality review mechanism, and much will have a commercial bias. Use the methods at to evaluate the quality of information on general sites, and in principle tend to focus on mainstream sites run by government agencies or universities.

5 Discussion lists and newsgroups

This is where you can waste most time, and where information is least reliable - but it can be fun, and is sometimes helpful, particularly if you want to communicate with others who have similar needs. You may even be lucky and join a group where there is a real expert. There are many groups on the Internet – just put in a search string with the word group, as well as whatever topic you are researching. The largest number of health related ones seem to currently be at Google groups ( )

Once you have undertaken your searches the most important next step is to discuss your findings with you doctor. The role of many doctors in gradually changing, and they are increasingly becoming “information analysts” helping patients find good quality health information that will lead to good healthcare decisions. More details are available in my book.

This article is based on excerpts from “Your Health in the Information Age – how you and your doctor can use the Internet to work together” by Peter Yellowlees MD. Available at and most online bookstores.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the breakdown and list of helpful sites.

    Please note that the PUBMED link has been updated to:

    I would reiterate the point that after searching, reading, and learning about health conditions you should absolutely have a conversation with your healthcare provider. It is hard enough for healthcare providers to sort out the junk from the pertinent information that is published. Just because it is "published" does not mean that it applies to your situation.

    Talk openly with your healthcare provider.

    Jonathan S. Ware, MD