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What should you look for when evaluating the quality of health information on Web sites? Here are some suggestions based on our experience.
Consider the source--Use recognized authorities
Know who is responsible for the content.
Look for an "about us" page. Check to see who runs the site: is it a branch of the Federal Government, a non-profit institution, a professional organization, a health system, a commercial organization or an individual.
There is a big difference between a site that says, "I developed this site after my heart attack" and one that says, "This page on heart attack was developed by health professionals at the American Heart Association."
Web sites should have a way to contact the organization or webmaster. If the site provides no contact information, or if you can't easily find out who runs the site, use caution.
Focus on quality--All Web sites are not created equal
Does the site have an editorial board? Is the information reviewed before it is posted?
This information is often on the "about us" page, or it may be under the organization's mission statement, or part of the annual report.
See if the board members are experts in the subject of the site. For example, a site on osteoporosis whose medical advisory board is composed of attorneys and accountants is not medically authoritative.
Look for a description of the process of selecting or approving information on the site. It is usually in the "about us" section and may be called "editorial policy" or "selection policy" or "review policy."
Sometimes the site will have information "about our writers" or "about our authors" instead of an editorial policy. Review this section to find out who has written the information.
Be a cyberskeptic--Quackery abounds on the Web
Does the site make health claims that seem too good to be true? Does the information use deliberately obscure, "scientific" sounding language? Does it promise quick, dramatic, miraculous results? Is this the only site making these claims?
Beware of claims that one remedy will cure a variety of illnesses, that it is a "breakthrough," or that it relies on a "secret ingredient."
Use caution if the site uses a sensational writing style (lots of exclamation points, for example.)
A health Web site for consumers should use simple language, not technical jargon.
Get a second opinion! Check more than one site.
Look for the evidence--Rely on medical research, not opinion
Does the site identify the author? Does it rely on testimonials?
Look for the author of the information, either an individual or an organization. Good examples are "Written by Jane Smith, R.N.," or "Copyright 2003, American Cancer Society."
If there are case histories or testimonials on the Web site, look for contact information such as an email address or telephone number. If the testimonials are anonymous or hard to track down ("Jane from California"), use caution.
Check for currency--Look for the latest information
Is the information current?
Look for dates on documents. A document on coping with the loss of a loved one doesn't need to be current, but a document on the latest treatment of AIDS needs to be current.
Click on a few links on the site. If there are a lot of broken links, the site may not be kept up-to-date.
Beware of bias--What is the purpose? Who is providing the funding?
Who pays for the site?
Check to see if the site is supported by public funds, donations or by commercial advertising.
Advertisements should be labeled. They should say "Advertisement" or "From our Sponsor."
Look at a page on the site, and see if it is clear when content is coming from a non-commercial source and when an advertiser provides it. For example, if a page about treatment of depression recommends one drug by name, see if you can tell if the company that manufactures the drug provides that information. If it does, you should consult other sources to see what they say about the same drug.
Protect your privacy--Health information should be confidential
Consult with your health professional--Patient/provider partnerships lead to the best medical decisions.