Internet and medicines

Last updated: Monday, May 23, 2016

The internet is a powerful tool for retrieving information about medicines. It is a vast resource that provides rapid access to electronic material such as journals, bulletins and guidelines from around the world. It can be updated quickly and allows speedy dissemination of information across a wide population. Yet, as with all information sources, it has its limitations and risks.

Assessing Quality 

Although many internet sites are reliable sources of information, some websites containing healthcare information are poorly evaluated, inaccurate, and biased. To help you assess the quality of information, always consider points such as the following:

Is the information professionally presented?
For example, are there any typographical or grammatical errors?

Who is responsible for the information? 
Is the information provided by a national organisation (e.g. British Association of Dermatologists)? If an individual or group of authors are responsible, are they qualified to provide the information? If the author is named, throw the name into Medline/Embase to see if they have published work in a peer-reviewed journal.

Are there any references? 
Check if the information is referenced, and if the references are genuine, relevant, and of adequate quality. Consider whether the information is based on fact or is an opinion.

Is the information current? 
Check if the information is up-to-date. A well-designed web page should display the date it was last updated/ revised.

Who owns or sponsors the site? 
Is the sponsor or owner of the site known? Are they reputable? The content of the website could be influenced by the sponsor or owner such as a business or pressure group. The URL or website address can give you clues to the company or organisation and their location. Many UK sites end in ‘.uk’. All other countries apart from the US have similar codes at the end of their addresses. Other clues include ‘’ for academic institutions, ‘’ for British companies, ‘’ for British government bodies and ‘’ for non-profit making British organisations.

Who is the target audience? 
This should be made clear via the website’s home page or ‘About us’ section. Websites providing health information to members of the public should direct them to healthcare professionals as appropriate. Is the information applicable to UK practice?

Remember that no single information source is totally comprehensive or completely up-to-date in all respects. After considering the above points, use your professional judgement to decide when you need to verify facts in another resource. This applies to any information source, but it is particularly important when obtaining information from the internet, when you may be unsure of the quality. Note that even well recognised internet-based resources have their limitations.

Searching Efficiently 

Another problem with the internet relates to its size – it can be very time-consuming to search. If you don’t know the URL you are looking for, then search engines can help but may produce thousands of hits. To find information using a search engine like Google, you can simply enter the word or phrase into the search box. Boolean operators can be used; some engines will automatically combine terms using ‘AND’ but if you want to use OR and NOT, you will need to enter these.

Depending upon the search engine used, enclosing your terms in double quotation marks (e.g. “hormone replacement therapy”) will search for the words in this order, as a phrase. Including the word NEAR in your search will find words close to one another in a reference (e.g. aspirin NEAR myocardial infarction). Using an asterisk at the end of the stem of a word will help to widen a search – if you enter pregn* some search engines will look for ‘pregnancy’ and ‘pregnant’.

Clinical problem solving and the internet 

Sometimes you will visit a specific website that you know and trust. However, on other occasions you may want to just do a general search of the internet to see what you can find. This approach can be helpful in situations like these:
• Availability of branded and/or foreign products, and identification of a manufacturer.
• Identification of medicines and herbal products.
• Information or news about obscure or new treatments.
• Street drugs and substance misuse.
• Details of clinical practice in other Trusts, organisations, or countries.

However, you need to be aware that searching the internet in this way may not provide a complete picture. For example, you may find a very good article detailing clinical practice in another country, but miss other articles providing different advice/information. There is also the danger of only finding the information you want to find (i.e. to prove your point), but not the information that you don’t! This can be influenced by the search terms that you choose.

General searches of the internet often yield unreliable data in situations like these:
• Drug interactions.
• Adverse drug reactions, and advice on safety in specific clinical situations.
• Evaluations of new or unfamiliar medicines, and pharmacoeconomics.
• Formulation and compatibility problems.