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Health Web Sites: Tips for Successful Navigation

Sparling, Phillip B. Ed.D., FACSM, guest columnist

doi: 10.1249/FIT.0b013e318282a688
COLUMNS: On the Floor

Health Web Sites: Tips for Successful Navigation.

Phillip B. Sparling, Ed.D., FACSM, is a professor emeritus in the School of Applied Physiology at the Georgia Institute of Technology. His research emphasis is on understanding physical activity and eating patterns as modifiable health behaviors. Dr. Sparling has authored many peer-reviewed articles and a college personal health textbook, iHealth, now in its second edition (McGraw-Hill, 2012).

As health/fitness professionals, we have a special bond of trust with clients. Frequently, they may ask us medical questions outside our expertise. Most clients do Web searches, but many are ill prepared to discern a National Institutes of Health (NIH) site from that of a huckster with a good Web designer. Similarly, online information gathered through social media, while positive in many ways, can be problematic regarding validity. We should be ready to direct clients to appropriate Web sites. To do this, we need to be up-to-date and savvy about Internet health resources.

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Here are a few tips to streamline the search process. First, recognize the need to carefully and critically evaluate Internet materials because anyone can post information. You, your family, and your friends may have your own Web sites. It’s easy and inexpensive to create them. Unlike reference books and articles in scientific and medical journals, a rigorous review and evaluation by experts before “publishing” on the Internet are not required. There are few gatekeepers for a large portion of all material posted in cyberspace.

As a general rule, certain categories of Web addresses (or URLs) — namely, those with “.org” (nonprofit group), “.gov” (federal government), and “.edu” (university) extensions — are more likely than the “.com” or “.net” (business) Web sites to lead to authoritative information. Although there are notable exceptions, it’s good for initial screening when conducting searches.

The leading indicator of credibility and trustworthiness is certification by an entity called Health On the Net Foundation (HON) ( Created in 1995 to cope with the unprecedented volume of health care information, the nonprofit HON reviews and endorses Web sites to protect consumers from misleading health information. Certified Web sites typically show the HON code of conduct seal on their opening page or under recognitions/awards.

Health consumers seek information that is factual, current, clearly written, and sponsored by a reputable group. The Web sites in Box 1 (listed alphabetically) meet these criteria and, in my view, are among the best available for general health information. These are an excellent core set to bookmark, and all are certified by the HON. WebMD is the most popular, whereas the other four are listed among the Medical Library Association’s top 10 most useful Web sites (

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Even among highly rated Web sites, it’s a good policy to not rely on a single Web site for the final word. On any important question, take the time to cross check your information on multiple independent Web sites known to be reputable.

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The term complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) refers to nonconventional medical treatments. These include dozens of diverse treatments, many of which have become mainstream. The category of biologically based therapies — which includes botanicals, vitamins, minerals, and a multitude of other dietary supplements — is the broadest and most popular. Among body-based practices, chiropractic and acupuncture are two well-known examples.

A number of CAM treatments have been proven effective, others show promise, and many remain unsubstantiated. Even though Western medicine is the bedrock for modern health care, it alone cannot answer all our questions about health and disease. Consequently, it’s wise to remain open yet cautious to nonconventional treatments. CAM practices are less regulated and studied than Western medicine, and this allows more room for fraud.

Examine specific practices based on their own merits and evidence. Research the effectiveness and safety of a CAM practice and check the practitioner’s qualifications and experience. The key is to be informed and speak with your physician about any alternate therapies you might be considering before making a decision about treatment. See Box 2 for trustworthy Web sites on CAM practices.

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For continuing education, it’s important to periodically review federal guidelines and professional association position stands on physical activity and diet, especially as they are updated. These are easily accessible through respective Web sites (see Box 3). All also have sections for the public, consumer, or patient.

Last, for unbiased reviews in medicine and health care, professionals should be familiar with three key sources (see Box 4). Each Web site provides recommendations on the effectiveness and safety of health care practices and interventions based solely on rigorous and systematic analysis of available science.

The Internet is an incredibly powerful asset, literally at our fingertips. It provides a vast electronic health/medical library accessible to the professional and layperson anywhere anytime. Yet, for many, the Internet remains a complex maze, where researching a topic can be frustrating and sometimes overwhelming. Next time your clients ask that out-of-field question, be ready to share tips on navigating the Internet and a few solid Web sites. It’s another way we can help them become savvy consumers and real partners in their own health care.

© 2013 American College of Sports Medicine