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See Jane Surf the Web

Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D. Updated: Sep 7th 2007

A study presented at the recent American Psychological Association Annual Meeting* found that women are more likely to use the Internet to find information about health-related topics for themselves or someone else (e.g., a child or older parent) than men. In addition, women are more likely to join on-line support groups, or ask for help on-line.

This finding is not surprising, since previous research has demonstrated gender differences in health care behaviors. For example, women are more likely to go to the doctor than men. There are other gender related differences when it comes to health care. Please see our updated article on Women's Health for more information /poc/center_index.php?id=176&cn=176

Results were based on surveys conducted between 2000 and 2004 by the Pew Internet American Life Project. This data suggested that 82% of women (compared with 75% of men) have ever searched the Internet for health-related issues.

Because there are no "information police" that regulate the posting of health-related information on websites, I'd thought I'd remind those women (and men) who are actively seeking out this type of information to be careful when relying on the Internet. Here are a list of questions to consider when evaluating a particular site and the information presented.

  • Who maintains the site?

The best sites have an editor/editorial board or another listing of the names and credentials of those responsible for preparing and reviewing the site's contents. In addition, there should be some way to contact these individuals if you have questions about information or want more details.

Government or university-run sites are good sources of information, but the information may be dated. Sites (such as ours) run, edited, and written by credentialed health care professionals are typically updated more frequently, but watch out for those that are a simply a marketing tool to sell products, or a forum to push particular social or political agendas.

  • Does the site refer to or link to other sources of health-related information?

Be wary of websites that present themselves as the only source of information on a particular topic. Also, be wary of sites that don't provide you with additional information about (or provide a link to) the studies that they describe or summarize in their articles. Be careful though, tons of links to other sites is not a foolproof method for determining quality; websites can create links to other sites without their permission. Also, be aware that websites that rely on advertising dollars to keep them up and running do not want you to "click away," because advertisers are more apt to place ads on sites that have high traffic volume (and keep people reading once they are there).

  • When was the site last updated?

Generally, the more current the site (articles posted frequently), the more likely it is to provide accurate and timely material.

  • Does the site charge an access fee?

Many reputable sites with health and medical information offer access and materials for free. If a site does charge a fee, conduct another search to determine whether you can get the same information without paying additional fees.

Finally, use the information on any health-related website as a complement to, rather than a substitute for, advice from a health care professional. We repeat this refrain throughout our articles on Mental Help Net, but if you think you are experiencing symptoms of a particular illness, do not self-diagnose. Health care professionals are the only people qualified to look at your entire history and current profile in order to diagnose and develop appropriate treatments for you. After all, that's why they spent so much time in school! Take notes (or the article itself) and ask your clinician about your concerns/symptoms, or your interest in a particular diagnostic procedure or treatment. The Internet, when used correctly and with caution, can be a wonderful tool for becoming an educated health-care consumer.

*This research was conducted by Dr. Phyllis Schumacher and Dr. Janet Morahan-Martin (both from Bryant University in Rhode Island) and has not been submitted for publication.

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