Health Information on the Web: Can It Be trusted?
Websites offer clues on reliability
Based on content from the NIH/National Institute on Aging AgePage "Online Health Information: Can You Trust It?"
As you search online, you are likely to find websites for many health agencies and organizations that are not well-known. By answering the following questions you should be able to find more information about these websites. A lot of these details can be found under the heading, “About Us” or “Contact Us.”
- Who sponsors the website? Can you easily identify the sponsor? Websites cost money—is the funding source readily apparent? Sometimes the website address itself may help—for example: .gov identifies a government agency; .edu identifies an educational institution; .org identifies professional organizations (e.g., scientific or research societies, advocacy groups); .com identifies commercial websites (e.g., businesses, pharmaceutical companies, sometimes hospitals)
- Is it obvious how you can reach the sponsor? Trustworthy websites will have contact information for you to use. They often have a toll-free telephone number. The website home page should list an e-mail address, phone number, or a mailing address where the sponsor and/or the authors of the information can be reached.
- Who wrote the information? Authors and contributors should be identified. Their affiliation and any financial interest in the content should also be clear. Be careful about testimonials. Personal stories may be helpful, but medical advice offered in a case history should be considered with a healthy dose of skepticism. There is a big difference between a website developed by a person with a financial interest in a topic versus a website developed using strong scientific evidence. Reliable health information comes from scientific research that has been conducted in government, university, or private laboratories.
- Who reviews the information? Does the website have an editorial board? Click on the “About Us” page to see if there is an editorial board that checks the information before putting it online. Find out if the editorial board members are experts in the subject you are researching. For example, an advisory board made up of attorneys and accountants is not medically authoritative. Some websites have a section called, “About Our Writers” instead of an editorial policy. Dependable websites will tell you where the health information came from and how it has been reviewed.
- When was the information written? New research findings can make a difference in making medically smart choices. So, it’s important to find out when the information you are reading was written. Look carefully on the home page to find out when the website was last updated. The date is often found at the bottom of the home page. Remember: older information isn’t useless. Many websites provide older articles so readers can get an historical view of the information.
- Does the website make claims that seem too good to be true? Are quick, miraculous cures promised? Be careful of claims that any one remedy will cure a lot of different illnesses. Be skeptical of sensational writing or dramatic cures. Make sure you can find other websites with the same information. Don’t be fooled by a long list of links—any website can link to another, so no endorsement can be implied from a shared link. Take the “too good to be true” test—information that sounds unbelievable probably is unbelievable.
A Final Note
Use your common sense and good judgment when evaluating health information online. There are websites on nearly every conceivable health topic and no rules overseeing the quality of the information. Take a deep breath and think a bit before acting on any health information you find on the web. Don’t count on any one website. If possible, check with several sources to confirm the accuracy of your results. And remember to talk with your doctor.
A Quick Checklist
You can use the following checklist to help make sure that the health information you are reading online can be trusted. You might want to keep this checklist by your computer.
- Can you easily see who sponsors the website?
- Is the sponsor a Federal agency or a medical school, or is it related to one of these?
- Can you find the mission or goal of the sponsor of the website?
- Can you see who works for the agency or organization and who is the author? Is there contact information?
- Can you tell when the information was written?
- Is your privacy protected?
- Does the website make claims that seem too good to be true? Are quick, miraculous cures promised?