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Online Health Information – Can You Trust It?

Allergy and Asthma image

There are thousands of health-related websites on the Internet. Some of the information on these websites is reliable; some of it is not. Some of the information is current; some of it is not. Choosing which web site to trust is worth thinking about. As a rule, health websites sponsored by federal government agencies are good sources of health information. You can reach all federal websites by visiting USA.gov. Large professional organizations and well-known medical schools may also be good sources of health information.

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 sites. Many of these details can be found under the heading “About Us” or “Contact Us.”

Who sponsors the website?
web sites cost money. Is the funding source readily apparent? Sometimes, the web 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); and
  • .com identifies commercial web sites (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. The 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.

It’s important to find out when the information you are reading was written.

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 and 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?
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 site 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 a historical view of the information.

Is your privacy protected?
This is important because, sadly, there is fraud on the Internet. Take time to read the website’s privacy policy – if the web site says something like, “We share information with companies that can provide you with products,” that’s a sign your information isn’t private.

Do not give out your Social Security number. If you are asked for personal information, be sure to find out how the information is being used by contacting the site sponsor. Be careful when buying things on the Internet. websites without security may not protect your credit card or bank account information. Look for information saying that a web site has a “secure server” before purchasing anything online.

Does the website make claims that seem too good to be true?
Be careful of claims that any one remedy will cure many 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.

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.

 

Source: National Institute on Aging, www.nia.nih.gov.

This article was originally published in Coping® with Allergies & Asthma magazine, May/June 2010.