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WADING THROUGH THE WEB

HOW TO FIND RELIABLE HEALTH INFORMATION ONLINE

These days, curiosity often leads us to the computer, where answers are just a few clicks away. But that quick Google search isn't the best course when it comes to your healthcare. Instead of launching random queries that produce a mixed bag of questionable advice, use these tips to identify quality information — whether you've been diagnosed with cancer or the common cold.

Uncover the source. Only 15 percent of people say they always check the source of the health information they find online. Yet that's one of the most important things you can do to ensure quality material. For starters, look for Web sites that end in ".gov" and ".edu," which are sponsored by government institutions and universities and tend to contain the most reliable information. Sites that end in ".org" can also be helpful, but be sure to check out who is responsible for their content; they should be run by professional or nonprofit organizations. The same rule applies to sites that end in ".com": Their credibility depends on who's sponsoring them.

Subtract the ads. Anyone can set up a Web site — not exactly a benefit when you're trying to find high-quality information. Be especially wary if the site's owner has something to sell, whether it's a big pharmaceutical company with a new drug or a startup offering a stop-snoring pillow. Information from these sources is often biased toward the product they're promoting. Good health sites provide objective educational materials about heartburn, for example, rather than simply telling you which pill or herb to buy for the condition. And ads should be labeled with "Advertisement" or "From Our Sponsor." Avoid sites that make claims about remedies that can "cure" illnesses.

Delve deeper. Check the site's "About Us" section, which should tell you who's running it. Look for articles either written or reviewed by physicians. Good information often also includes references to relevant studies, which show the author did his homework.

Keep it current. With scientific evidence constantly changing, patients need the most up-to-date information possible. Check for "last updated" or "last reviewed" dates (typically at the end of articles) of less than a year ago.

Present your research. Once you've found good information, don't just dump it on your doctor. Instead, think ahead: With some advance planning, you can use this data to help build a partnership with your healthcare practitioner.

Patients must be prepared, though, to take responsibility for the information they find. Read it thoroughly and jot down a few key questions. Then, drop off selected articles and your questions at the office and schedule a consultation with your doctor — or a nurse — to go over what you've found and make sure you've got the best information for your situation.

Jessica Cerretani is a Boston-based freelance writer and editor.

SUMMARY

When seeking online answers to your health questions, sites that end in ".gov" and ".edu," which are sponsored by government institutions and universities, tend to contain the most reliable information. Sites that end in ".org" can also be helpful, but be sure to check out who is responsible for their content (start with the "About" area); "dot-orgs" should be run by professional or nonprofit organizations. When it comes to sites that end in ".com," credibility again depends on who's sponsoring them.

If a Web site's owner has something to sell, proceed with caution — information from these sources may be biased. Avoid sites that make claims about remedies that can "cure" illnesses.

There's no substitute for a face-to-face conversation with your doctor, but Web-savvy patients can help take that discussion to a deeper level when armed with information from smart online searches.

SIX RELIABLE INTERNET RESOURCES

CDC.gov: Dependable material on health and safety, statistics, and other disease-related data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Familydoctor.org: Sponsored by the American Academy of Family Physicians, this site offers an A-to-Z condition guide, tips for healthy living, a "symptom search," and medication guide.

MedlinePlus: More than 750 health topics, a medical encyclopedia, and information on drugs and supplements from the National Institutes of Health's National Library of Medicine (NLM).

MLANet.org: The Web site for the Medical Library Association includes resources for consumers such as a guide for deciphering medical jargon and a tutorial for evaluating health information.

PubMed: NLM's searchable database of thousands of medical journals is geared toward medical professionals, but patients may find valuable info on new studies and treatments.

WebMD.com: "Dot-com" site containing physician-reviewed health articles, news, blogs, and message boards.