Sense of Search: Medical Information on the Web

Online medical information | CU OB-GYN | Woman on computerNewly expectant parents do all sorts of things. They call their loved ones. They pour through name books. And they start searching the internet.

Data from a 2011 study from the Pew Internet and American Life Project shows that health information is one of the most important subjects that internet users research online (59 percent of Americans search for it online, according to a 2013 Pew study). Health information was the third most popular online pursuit (they tracked), following email and using a search engine.

More specifically, they found that 25-31 percent of internet users age 18-45 have searched online for information related to pregnancy and childbirth. That’s a lot of people.

So searching for “pregnancy and childbirth,” what are we likely to find?

Well, if it’s December 12, 2012 and you type the phrase “pregnancy and childbirth” into one popular search engine starting with G, you get about 27,900,000 results. That same phrase searched by an engine that starts with a Y yields 54,600,000 results, while using the engine that starts with a B gives 54,300,000 results. That’s a lot of website pages. How will we make sense of it all?

Librarians to the rescue

Fortunately, the librarians at the National Library of Medicine empathize with your plight. It’s their plight, too. To help you find reliable information on the web, they created a tutorial called Evaluating Internet Health Information. It’s not just for pregnancy information. It’s actually not even just for medical information. The approach they teach can be applied across the board—and the web.

They demonstrate their points by comparing and contrasting two hypothetical websites, the Institute for A Healthier Heart and Physicians Academy for Better Health. On the surface, both sound like great sources of reliable medical information. But since it’s a tutorial, one is reliable and one is not. That’s the point.

The tutorial takes around 16 minutes to watch. While that may seem like a long time, it’s definitely less than it would take to visit the millions and millions of sites we discovered searching for “pregnancy and childbirth.”

Their list of questions to ask when evaluating a website fall into three broad categories: Provider and Purpose, Information Quality and User Privacy. Many of these issues boil down to website transparency.

Provider and purpose

  1. Who runs the site?
  2. Who sponsors the site?
  3. Why did they create it?
  4. What do they want from you?
  5. Is there a way to contact them?

 Information quality

  1. Is the site current?
  2. Where did the information come from?
  3. Are the claims made on the site believable?
  4. Do experts review the information?
  5. Does the site’s information favor the sponsor?

 Your patient privacy

  1. Do they request personal information?
  2. What will they do with your personal information?

Trusted medical information on the internet

CU OB-GYN’s Medical Library

Who else can help you find reliable information about your pregnancy on the internet?  Well, believe it or not, your healthcare team may also have some suggestions. After all, providing patients with good information makes providing good care that much easier. And if you look around this website, you’ll see that it offers a great deal of useful medical information. Most healthcare providers’ websites don’t.


This blog post written by Sonya Erickson, MD, February 4, 2013. While this information was derived from reliable medical sources, it is not intended as a substitute for your personal medical care. Readers are directed to consult with their personal health care team members when addressing their individual healthcare needs. This is even true when making decisions about internet sites. The patient pages on the website run by the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) are some of my personal favorites. I am a member of ACOG, but I do not receive any compensation in exchange for speaking highly of their website.