Sources for medical information for non-medics and non-scientists

By Grant Jacobs 18/03/2010

A recent up-swing locally in credulous claims about vaccines and the diseases they address has prompted me to list a small number of resources that I have found to have readable explanations of medical information for non-medics and non-scientists.

My lists are not complete or ’definitive’, nor do I claim to be some authority on things medical. I’m just sharing a few sites I have used in the hope that they are useful for others who want find medical information. I have not listed sites that deal with medicines per se; these sites are focused on diseases.

Don’t forget that your best source of information is your registered medical practitioner.

(I emphasise registered medical practitioner to distinguish them from those offering ’natural remedies’ and those whose style themselves as doctors but are not in fact registered practitioners.)

Useful medical information websites

Others are welcome to recommend other sites in the comments below. The links are on the title of the sources.

Major international sites

Be aware when reading overseas sites that some drug names, etc., are local; peculiar to (say) the USA.


MedlinePlus is a service of the US National Library of Medicine, the same organisation that provides Medline, the widely-used academic research literature database. One thing I like about this source is that it links on to many other resources.

Mayo clinic

The Mayo Clinic is one of the very top medical research hospitals in the USA, along with John Hopkins, which also hosts a useful medical information site.


Most people will know the CDC from TV and movies. It is the USA Center (not Centre!) for Disease Control And Prevention. This site also is a good source of statistics on disease in the USA and elsewhere.


No international list would be complete without mentioning the WHO, the World Health Organisation.

They are focused on ’the big picture’ with data, summaries and reports on major health events or the big international projects. Unfortunately their website can sometimes be a little confusing. One reliable way into information is to click on ‘Health Topics’ on the left, then choose from the list. Using their text search box should present the health topic page for that disease as the first item.

New Zealand websites

I’ve not elaborated on these, as locals will easily recognise their host organisations, etc.



IMAC (Immunisation Advisory Centre)

Sceptical websites

These sites contain useful information, but are more informal and tend to be presented in a forceful style that may not appeal to some. Some of the ’lesser’ sceptical sites can be a little too zealous; those that I have listed should be reasonably balanced. (I don’t care for sites that won’t admit where things have gone wrong, for example.)

As sceptical websites, they focus on picking up poor practices or unsound claims and exposing them. If something is smacked down in these sites, chances are good it is unsound (often, very unsound).

There are many other sceptical sites like these. I’ve only listed a few I am familiar with that are run by medically-qualified people. While these sites are rarely wrong in any serious way, cautious readers can check their conclusions against the sites I listed earlier. Others are welcome to suggest other highly-regarded sceptical websites in the comments.

Science-Based Medicine

A well-known blog run by a team of medical professionals. Their regular long-term writers are good, although on rare occasions I find myself sceptical of a handful finer points. (I’m nitpicky!) This site covers a wide range of topics.

Bad Science

Dr. Ben Goldacre is a former medic, now a British journalist with a large following. I’m less familiar with this site, but he comes with a good reputation.

Respectful Insolence

Orac is the (pseudo)anonymous alias for the medical professional who writes the Respectful Insolence blog, which is well-known. His articles tend to be forceful and long. (Brew a cuppa before you start!) He mainly covers vaccine-, autism- and cancer-related issues. And homeopathy, with the odd other thing thrown in and can be quite entertaining. He once wrote about a blue man. Also an orange man.

Quack Watch (Dr. Stephen Barrett; HON code accredited)

A large site, with a lot of hosted material and a long history. I haven’t visited this site in a while.

HON accreditation (Health On the Net)

While checking the sites above and others, I found a number now feature an icon from the NGO Health On the Net which offers international accreditation for health websites.

HON is based in Switzerland, with close ties to the University Hospitals of Geneva and the Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics. It has a number of collaborations with research and medical groups around the world.

This ’badge of approval’ is an acknowledgement that the site is open to being checked by the HON team and claims to adhere to the HON code of conduct. (I am not familiar with the standards they assess these the registered websites; others are welcome to speak up on this.)

The icon on a health information website should be linked to a secure page on the website. If it is not, it is not genuine.

Last thoughts

It’s simplest to stick to the sites I listed in the first section to avoid the hassle of having to sort out what is right or wrong, but if you must explore the wider (and wilder) internet… ’good luck!’ It’s a messy place.

I don’t mean to be patronising in writing these last words for those exploring other sites (below), but as physicist Feynman is famous for having said, not fooling yourself is the bigger part of the trick.

Be wary of fooling yourself into thinking you have instant expertise. The public face of the internet is good at hiding the huge amount work, and subtlety, behind seemingly straight-forward statements, hidden away in academic publications and formal training. It’s true for the sites I list, too. It’s great to try learn things for yourself, but when it comes to practical application you’re much better to trust someone who is formally trained in the specific thing. Even medical research scientists do!

Until you are at a comparable level to medical researchers, you’re exceptionally unlikely to be able to make a better ’call’ than they can. Sites that encourage their readers to think that they can out-call medical researchers are being deceitful in the same way as it’d be deceitful to encourage someone to think that they can ’instantly’ out-cook a trained gourmet chef or ’instantly’ out-build an experienced joiner.

Update (15th July 2010)

Steven Novella at Science-Based Medicine has written an examination of the quality of medical information, in particular the HON code, which I recommend to readers.


I am not a medical practitioner; my specialist area is computational biology. Part of my work involves the molecular basis of some human diseases.

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