How to Evaluate Online Health Information

It’s well known that most people go online to find health information. In fact, 80% of Internet users have searched for health information online. However, there’s great variability in the quality and reliability of online health information. While some is from top-notch health care organizations, other information can be misleading and even harmful.

How can you know if the health information you find online is current, accurate and helpful?

The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) offers considerable help with this task. They have provided a list of 12 questions you can use to evaluate health-related websites. Let’s take a moment to summarize these helpful questions.

1) Who runs the website?

Any website should make it easy for you to learn who is responsible for the site and its information. Most sites will note the sponsoring organization on every page of the site and provide easily accessed links to the site’s home page.

2) Who pays for the website?

The funding source for a website should be easy to determine. For example, US government-funded sites end in “.gov,” educational institutions have “.edu” sites, noncommercial organizations often use “.org,” and “.com” indicates commercial organizations. The funding source can affect the content and goals of the site.

3) What is the website’s purpose?

It’s important to know the purpose of a website. Many sites provide information about the site and its staff on an “About” page. This page describe the site’s purpose and helps you evaluate the reliability of the information on the site. If a site sells or promotes specific products or services, this may influence the way in which they present health information.

4) What is the original source of the website’s information?

Many health-related websites will indicate if posted information has been collected from other websites or sources. If the site did not create the material, they should clearly identify the original source.

5) How does the website document the evidence supporting its information?

Websites should describe the scientific evidence supporting the health material presented on their site. Medical information should have references, such as citations of articles published in research journals. Personal opinions or advice should be easy to distinguish in comparison to information that’s “evidence-based” (based on research findings). Personal testimonials from people who have tried a particular product or service are not evidence-based.

6) Who reviewed the information before the owner posted it on the website?

Health websites should provide information about the professional credentials of the people who prepared or reviewed the material on the site.

7) How current is the information on the website?

Health experts should review and update the material on the site on a regular basis. Information needs to be current because research constantly provides new findings about health conditions and treatments. Sites should clearly indicate the most recent review date.

8) How does the website owner choose links to other sites?

Reliable websites usually have a policy concerning how they select links to other sites, which may include establishing certain criteria for the links they will use. By checking this policy, you can better understand how they choose links to other sites.

9) What information about users does the website collect, and why?

Websites routinely track the path users take through their sites to understand which pages people are viewing. Some sites may also ask you to “subscribe” to the site or pay a user fee, and may ask you for personal information. If so, they should explain exactly how the site will use your personal information. Carefully read and understand any privacy policy and don’t sign up for anything you don’t fully understand.

10) How does the web site manage interactions with users?

Sites should offer a way for users to contact the site owner with concerns, feedback, or questions. If the site hosts any form of online discussion, it should explain the policies (including privacy) for this service.

11) How can you verify the accuracy of health information you receive via e-mail?

Carefully evaluate any e-mails you receive that provide health-related information. Consider the message’s source and its purpose. If the email links back to a website, use the above questions to evaluate the reliability of the information.

12) How are consumers protected from false or misleading health claims posted on the Internet?

In the US, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulate and investigate complaints about misleading or false health claims posted online. Other countries may also provide similar governmental services.

By using these questions, you can become a more informed consumer of online health information and be better equipped to evaluate the reliability of the information. Also remember to not rely solely on online information in making personal health decisions. Be sure to discuss any online health information with your health care provider.

Here’s a question: What has been your experience with finding and evaluating online health information? Please leave a comment. Also, please subscribe to my blog and feel free to follow me on Twitter, “like” my Facebook page, or connect on LinkedIn. Thanks!

Reference: How to Evaluate Health Information on the Internet, US National Institutes of Health (NIH).

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