Wednesday, March 26, 2008

What Can You Trust: 10 Essential Questions for Assessing Online Health Information

By Vincent Robleto

8 million American adults look online for health information on a typical day.

Three-quarters of health seekers do not consistently check the source and date of the health information they find online.

Source: Fox, Susannah. Online Health Search 2006. Washington, DC: Pew Internet & American Life Project, October 29, 2006.

Everyday 8 Million Americans turn to the internet for health information. They are confronted with thousands of websites offering information.

Some of those sites are current, reliable sources of information; some are not. How is it possible for a consumer to tell the difference? There are 10 essential questions you should ask before trusting information you find online to make important medical decisions.

Foremost, your treatment plan should always be discussed with your doctor. These questions and answers can help you determine whether the health information you find online is likely to be trustworthy.

Consumers should be aware that a website can appear legitimate, but in fact be a front for an illegal operation. The FDA urges consumers to beware of Internet drug sellers, because their products might not contain the correct ingredients and could contain toxic substances.

10 Essential Questions to ask before trusting information gathered online.

1. Who runs the website?
Any good health website should make it easy to learn who is responsible for the site and its information. Information about who runs the site can often be found in an "About Us" section, and there's usually a link to that section on the site's home page.
Sometimes the website address itself may help—for example:
.gov identifies a government agency
.edu identifies an educational institution
.org identifies non-profit organization
.com identifies commercial websites

2. Is it easy to contact the people who run the website?
Trustworthy websites will provide contact information for you to use. They should provide a toll-free telephone number, an e-mail address and a mailing address where they can be reached. Check for a “Contact Us” section.

3. What is the purpose of the website?
The purpose of a website is an important consideration in evaluating information. Your answer to question 1 can provide insight into the website host’s intent. Be cautious about sites trying to sell a product or service.
Is the reason for the site’s existence:
To inform?
To sell a product?
To raise money?

4. What is the source of the information on the website?
Always pay close attention to where the information on the site comes from. Many websites post information gathered from other websites. If the website creator did not write the material, the person who did should be clearly identified. Be careful of sites that don't say where they get their information. Unsupported claims should raise a red flag. Be careful about testimonials. Quotes of personal experience may be helpful, but anecdotal accounts should be treated with skepticism. There is a big difference between a website developed by a person with a vested financial interest in a topic versus information developed using strong, impartial scientific evidence. Reliable health information comes from scientific research that has been conducted in strictly controlled scientific environments. Government, university, or private laboratories are more likely to maintain reliable research conditions than commercial business.

5. When was the information written?
Even information provided in good faith by medical doctors can quickly become obsolete as the frontier of scientific discovery is expanded.
New research findings can dramatically alter what we know about medicine. Try to find out when the website was last updated. The date can often be found at the bottom of the home page.
Web sites should be reviewed and updated on a regular basis. Never is having current information more important than when making medical decisions.
A good indicator of how recently the information has been reviewed can be tested by the consumer--click a few links-- if there are ‘broken’ links: beware.

6. Is your privacy protected?
If the website has a privacy policy—read it. If they are sharing your information with other companies: beware. If you are asked for personal information, be sure to find out how the information is being used. Be careful when buying things on the Internet. Websites without adequate security may not protect your credit card information. Ensure that a website has a “secure server” before making online purchases.

7. How does the website choose links to other sites?
Beware of websites that purport to provide information, but seem to have a lot of links to go elsewhere. Some sites make money by directing you to other sites.
Good providers of medical information take a careful approach and do not link to any other sites; others link only to sites that have met certain criteria. Determine if the website has a linking policy. Check “About us.”

8. Does the website make claims that seem too good to be true?
Be careful of grand claims. 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 lacks credibility.

9. What information does the website collect about its visitors, and why?
Many websites track the path visitors take through their sites to determine what pages are being used. However, many health-related Web sites ask the visitor to "subscribe" or "become a member." Many commercial sites sell the data they collect from visitors to other companies. Any website asking users for personal information should explain exactly what the site will and will not do with the information. Be sure to read any privacy policy or similar on the site, and never sign up for anything you don't understand.

10. Can the accuracy of information received in an e-mails and chat rooms be verified?
Be especially skeptical of information found in emails and chat rooms. Think about the origin of the message and its purpose. Many companies use e-mail to promote their products and attract people to their websites. Interests of the person providing the information often influence the accuracy of the information. Although these emails and chat rooms can be good sources of support from real people with diseases or disorders, they can also spread misinformation. Most of the content in chat groups is unverified and presented by persons without credentials. Some of these people are ‘shills’; promoting products without letting on that they stand to make financial gain from doing so. Take the information with a grain of salt, and get a second opinion from a disinterested third party, especially your doctor.

A Quick Checklist
1. Who runs the website?
2. Is it easy to contact the people who run the website?
3. What is the purpose of the website?
4. What is the source of the information on the website?
5. When was the information written?
6. Is your privacy protected?
7. How does the website choose links to other sites?
8. Does the website make claims that seem too good to be true?
9. What information does the website collect about its visitors, and why?
10. Can the accuracy of information received in an e-mails and chat rooms be verified?

As you search online, you are likely to find websites for many health agencies and organizations that are not well known. By asking these 10 questions you should be able to evaluate the credibility of information.

In addition to these 10 questions, use your common sense and good judgment when evaluating health information online. There is good information out there on every conceivable health topic, and there are thousands of health-related websites on the Internet. For medical information it is very important to be a smart consumer, ask for a second opinion.


MORE RESOURCES for dependable information on health-related topics. a senior-friendly website from the National Institute on Aging and the National Library of Medicine. This website has health information for older adults. This website has accessibility options. For example, you can click on a button to have the text read out loud or to make the type larger.

National Library of Medicine, Medline Plus
Council of Better Business Bureaus
Health Internet Ethics
Internet Health Coalition
Medical Library Association


Vincent Robleto is a recent graduate of of Saint Vincent College for more information, contact Vincent at

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