Finding trustworthy medicines information

Woman senior online

Information about medical conditions and medicines is available on the internet. Image: Shutterstock.com

Information about the benefits and side effects of medicines can come from many sources, including the internet, the media, even family and friends. It can often be hard to judge which information is useful and what is exaggerated hype — or even nonsense. For example, news stories might describe 'new research', or 'scientific evidence' in a way that sounds conclusive, but may not be reliable, so it pays to be careful.

Here are some tips for finding information you can trust.

Always talk to a health professional

Before acting on any medicines information you find from other sources, such as the internet, always discuss what you have found with a health professional you trust. Health professionals, such as doctors, pharmacists and nurses, will usually be your best and most reliable source of information about medicines for your individual situation.

For tips on making the most of appointments with health professionals, see Getting the most out of medical appointments.

Did you know?

Almost half of all Australians aged over 50 years who looked for information about medicines in the past year, used the internet to find it. (Source: The NPS Medicines Census, 2010.)

Video transcript

I think it’s really important to take time to become informed about medicines — and particularly when you’re looking at starting a new medicine. And I think there are lots of ways you can do that. You can ask people that you know that may have taken that medicine, but now with technology, I think the web is something that people are going to more and more.

I think Google has become more and more the person you talk to first, and often people go armed to their doctor or pharmacist with the information, and the difficulty with that is whether it is good information or not, and trying to sort that out. That’s the very hard thing, and that’s why it is very important to assess whether a website is credible or not.

But a couple of really good points to remember are: Who is the organisation funded by? And are they trying to sell you something? So I think they are really good things to ask yourself when you’re trying to assess if it’s credible.


The consumer medicine information (CMI) is a good place to start

The consumer medicine information (CMI) for a medicine provides standard key information in a non-biased, plain English style. It will include:

  • who the medicine is approved for
  • who should not take it
  • how to take it
  • important potential side effects and interactions to be aware of.

A CMI leaflet must be produced by the manufacturer for all prescription and some non-prescription medicines. Sometimes it is included in the pack. You can search for and download the CMI leaflet, or you can ask your pharmacist.

Someone else’s experience with a medicine won’t always be the same as yours

Sharing experiences with other people who are in similar situations can be extremely helpful. Other people’s experiences with a particular medicine might be a trigger to find out more about it. However, there are several reasons why your experience with the same medicine may be different.

Someone with the same condition as yours can be different from you in many ways — including the other medicines they take, the other conditions they have, and their general health, age and lifestyle.

The experiences of large numbers of people (e.g. in clinical trials) are a more useful source of information about benefits and side effects of medicines than one person’s experience. Your health professional can also take into account your individual state of health to determine how likely you are to get benefits or side effects from a particular medicine.

The media are good at telling stories

Information about medicines in the media should be treated cautiously as the quality varies widely. It may be accurate, or it may not. Media stories about new medicines may relate to early stage trials or laboratory and animal studies. These stories may create false hope and they often do not provide a realistic timeframe for a new medicine to be approved for sale.

You might also see stories about ‘new’ side effects appearing for particular medicines. Such stories rarely provide a full picture of the overall evidence and can’t give advice about possible alternative treatments — yet many people stop their medicine after hearing a negative news story, without even consulting their doctor.

For some guidance on how to evaluate health stories in the media, see the Media Doctor website; this website rates health-related stories according to their quality.

Get the best out of the internet

A lot of information about medical conditions and medicines to treat them is available on the internet. Some of this information is accurate; some is not. This can make it difficult to find information you can trust.

One strategy is to use good sites that you can keep going back to, rather than searching the entire internet. You can find information on a medicine in the consumer medicine information (CMI) or by using our search function. Some other recommended websites are shown below.

You should also remember that the best way to learn is to read widely, so even if you find a website that looks good, bookmark it (or print the pages you want) and keep looking for information. Reading several different articles about a topic gives you different perspectives and a better likelihood of getting balanced information than just referring to one website.

Video transcript

A lot of people will look up medications on the computer, and sometimes I think they have a bit too much information. I would suggest that you go and get diagnosed properly first by your doctor. Because often you may only have a few of the symptoms of a particular condition, which are causing you a problem — and it may not be exactly what is on the computer.

And I think if you have found out about a medication and you’re concerned about it, then you need to ring your doctor up and ask him, if it’s possible for you — when you’re on such and such a medication — ask him if it’s possible for you to get a particular symptom that worries you.


Some recommended websites

Many professional organisations and support groups provide good information on their websites about specific illnesses. You can find many of these by following the links on the A to Z list of health topics on the HealthInsite website. HealthInsite is a government-funded organisation that only links to websites that meet its quality standards.

Medicines Line

NPS collaborates with healthdirect Australia to deliver Medicines Line. Medicines Line is a phone information service that provides consumers with independent information on prescription, over-the-counter and complementary medicines (including herbal and ‘natural’ medicines and vitamin and mineral supplements).

When you call 1300 MEDICINE (1300 633 424), you will speak with an experienced registered nurse. Your question may be answered on the spot, or you may be referred to your GP or pharmacist, or to another health professional. If you have a complex enquiry, you may be put through to a NPS pharmacist. Medicines Line operates Monday–Friday, 9am–5pm Eastern Standard Time (excluding public holidays).