Web surfer, heal thyself -- but beware.

There is an incredible amount of health information that is available online, and it comes from all sorts of places. This is specifically why we all need to consider whether the information we are getting from the Internet is correct, beneficial and harmless.

With a Google search showing 1.4 billion pages of health information, how can we be sure that our search for health advice will not result in us getting bad, or even dangerous advice? The wonderful thing about the Internet is exactly the problem with it as well. It is a giant web of unfiltered information, some good and some bad.

When your spider senses detect something wrong with you or your family member and you rush to look online to find out what it is, without investigating the source, you simply cannot tell whether it is useful or not.

Some advice is clearly dangerous. Showering after sex does not reduce the chances of infection with HIV (a recommendation from the former vice president of South Africa). Other claims about the use of herbs and essential oils or calcium supplements -- or even Web sites devoted to eating disorders -- might appear to a reasonable person to be good advice. But how do you tell the difference?

A study

by the University of Colorado at Denver evaluated medical information available online, and concluded that it is as easy to find incorrect information on the Web as it is to find correct information.

The report gave various strategies for evaluating the good and the bad, such as considering the content of the site, the depth and quality of the information, and the origin of the information:

Who wrote it?

Who is the sponsor of the site and what are the qualifications of the person giving the information?

When was it published?

Doctors, because of this wealth of information available online, now have to deal with patients who are armed with some knowledge (or misinformation) about their condition, diagnosis and the treatment. The Colorado study provides advice to the medical profession in addressing this challenge and how to deal with situations where they need to "prove" to the patient that the information that they have may not be accurate.

There are also Web sites devoted to tracking down bad, or even criminal, medical information on the Web, such as

Quackwatch

.

To ensure that you get the best information from the Web, you should use sites that you trust. As with the case of

Health.com

(TWX)

or

iVillage Your Total Health

(GE) - Get Report

, protection of the brand is so important that they will try to ensure that all the information that you get will be accurate all of the time.

Web sites devoted to health can go to extraordinary lengths to ensure that their information can be trusted. In an interview with West Shell III, chairman and CEO of the specialist search engine company

Healthline Networks

, he stated that they expect to log 20 million hits in June.

To protect its integrity, Healthline has invested millions of dollars in creating what it refers to as semantic taxonomy. That's simply a clever way to take your search term and link it to relevant articles based on your search and what the company believe that you should be looking for if you are interested in the subject. Healthline says that by having medical doctors vetting the articles it links to, it has been able to ensure that the advice given is relevant and accurate.

Shell said he wants Healthline to be the provider of choice to partner organizations who trust their abilities to provide access to the best available information.

Healthline has developed partnerships with many well-known companies. It provides

AOL's

health search engine, and has teamed up with

Aetna

(AET)

on

Aetna SmartSource

, a personalized health search engine that takes Aetna's clients health information as determined by insurance claims.

Shell says the company's "mission is to provide intelligent consumer support." He cautions that trust is an issue but that Healthline, like Steve Case's

Revolution Health

, is providing consumers with information to assist them in making decisions, as well as helping them to manage their healthcare more effectively.

So, by all means use the online world for health information, but remember that each piece of information has to be treated with skepticism, and you must consider the accuracy of the source.

Gavin Magor joined TheStreet.com Ratings in 2008, and is the senior analyst responsible for assigning financial strength ratings to health insurers and supporting other health care-related consumer products, including Medicare supplement insurance, long-term care insurance and elder care information. He conducts industry analysis in these areas. He has more than 20 years' international experience in credit risk management, commercial lending and analysis, working in the U.K., Sweden, Mexico, Brazil and the U.S. He holds a master's degree in business administration from The Open University in the U.K.