It always happens the same way: I experience a few different symptoms, Google them, select an enticing WebMD article and diagnose myself with a terminal illness – all within a mere five minutes. If I allowed the internet to be the authoritative voice regarding my health care the numerous times that this has happened, I would be in thousands of dollars of debt due to multiple tests done in search of a cancer that isn’t there. Though technology has advanced medicine to unprecedented heights within the last decade alone, it also is responsible for millions of inaccurate self-diagnoses and the spread of incorrect healthcare information. The errors made by these health websites may be detrimental for someone who is truly in need of sound medical advice…and that is a big problem for a society that’s only growing more technologically dependent.

In 2012, the online Journal of Pediatrics published a study entitled, “Safe Infant Sleep Recommendations on the Internet: Let’s Google It.” The study, conducted by Dr. Rachel Moon and colleagues, aimed to test the accuracy of medical information found online regarding sleep safety for infants. While the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has published guidelines for reducing the risks of sleep-related infant deaths, such as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and suffocation, the guidelines are written for clinical professionals, and most individuals seek health care information from websites that contain less medical jargon. The team Googled 13 phrases related to infant sleep safety and compared the medical advice written in the first 1300 search results to the AAP recommendations. Their findings were (somewhat) surprising:

-43.5% of the 1300 websites contained information in line with the AAP’s recommendations

-28.1% of the websites contained entirely inaccurate information

-28.4% of the websites were not medically relevant at all

This means that over half of the medical information we find online is either inaccurate or irrelevant. They also studied the types of websites yielded by the search, and discovered that government and national organization websites (ending in .org) provided the most accurate health information, with 80.9% and 72.5% accuracy respectively. Of the 1300 websites reviewed, 246 of them were retail product review sites, which were only 8.5% accurate in their information! Also surprisingly, educational websites (like ebooks, peer-reviewed articles, and links ending in .edu) only had 50.2% accurate medical information. These numbers are quite scary for those of us that use the internet regularly to find healthcare information; the statistics prove just how difficult it may be to find reliable and non-contradictory advice regarding our health.

Though you may feel like you’ve been lied to for years about all of the knowledge you’ve obtained via a Google search, there is still hope for finding accurate information in the future. Always investigate the websites that you refer to, and remember that .org and .gov sites will be the best place to look. It’s also important that the sites update their content, as we all know that medical information in particular is subject to quick change as research and technology progresses. Most importantly, remember that when WebMD tells you that you only have a few months to live, this is likely not the case; by seeking the advice of a trustworthy physician, paying attention to your body and practicing healthy lifestyle choices, you may live for several more decades.