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Can You Trust Online Health Information?

In 2010, the lowdown on any conceivable health concern is just a Web search away. Google “sprained ankle” and you’ll get more than half a million hits. Diabetes? More than 70 million.

  

We increasingly rely on the Web’s treasure-trove of data. Nearly three-quarters of U.S. adults have Internet access, and 57 percent of adults use the Web to find health information, according to a June 2009 report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

  

But how trustworthy is the information we’re unearthing?

  

Anybody can put up a Web site and publish information of dubious quality. This report will help you find the best, most accurate health Web sites and steer clear of questionable ones.

  

Know Who’s Behind The Site

 

It’s wise to cultivate a healthy skepticism about any medical information you read online. Always begin the process by assessing who is responsible for a given site and what the publisher has to gain.

 

  • Is it easy to find an “About us” link that provides information about the publisher? Reputable entities are eager to reveal who they are, how they can be contacted and what expertise they offer. 

 

  • How much information is provided about the publisher? The site should explain who’s producing it and why. It should provide the publisher’s qualifications. Also, many of the best health sites rely on the guidance of a board of directors or an advisory council—and list their names and qualifications.

 

  • What sort of entity is the publisher? Is it a federal government agency, a medical association, a university, or a nationally-known nonprofit foundation (for example, American Cancer Society, National Arthritis Foundation, American Heart Association)? Is the site run by a clinic with a national reputation (think Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic)? You can’t go wrong with such highly credible publishers because everything they put online is based on research. And in most cases, they have no profit motive.

 

  • Is the site produced by a drug manufacturer? By law, the publisher must disclose accurate information about the medication and any side effects. But clearly the site has an interest in promoting its own brands. Assume the information is accurate, but consult your doctor if you have questions. There may be several medications with similar properties, and your physician is the best judge of which one is right for you.

 

  • Is the site a dot-com published by a for-profit entity? Some commercial sites are among the best, most trustworthy health sources online—for example, WebMD.com and healthcentral.com. Their writers include journalists and medical experts, and their publishers follow all the recommendations outlined in this article. Other commercial sites are highly suspect, especially those that wish to sell you something. Let the Web surfer beware.

 

  • Is the publisher an individual? He or she may be highly informed—but you should regard the articles critically. The Internet is rife with sites produced by crackpots who promote themselves as experts. And their advice usually runs counter to established medical practice.

 

Be Critical Of Content

 

Once you’ve established the credibility of the information provider, you’ll want to examine the content of the site itself.

 

  • Is the information based on scientific research? Are references clearly cited? Ideally, articles should give references that include names of researchers, date of publication, and name of the scientific publication or report.

 

  • Are doctors or other experts approving the content? Sites such as WebMD.com and healthcentral.com make a point of noting that their content is reviewed by medical professionals.

 

  • How current is the content? Articles should feature dates of publication and/or the most recent update. Scientific and medical information changes quickly, and the best advice of two or three years ago may be passé now.

 

  • Are products sold on the site? What kind? If the site includes advertisements, are they clearly labeled as such? Is there any apparent conflict of interest between the publisher and the advertisers? For instance, a nutritional Web site that also sells vitamin supplements is probably not as objective as the federal government’s fruitsandveggiesmatter.gov site.

 

  • Does the site feature amateurish graphics and grammatical errors? Either could indicate that nonprofessionals are producing the content.

 

  • When you compare several sites, do the articles present more or less the same data you can find on rock-solid sites such as those published by the federal government (e.g., the Centers for Disease Control, www.cdc.gov) or reputable associations (like the American Cancer Society, www.cancer.org)? If a particular Web site provides highly divergent information, it’s probably inaccurate.

 

Watch For Red Flags

 

If you see any of the following danger signs, close your browser window and look for a more authoritative site:

 

  • Information touted as secret that can be found nowhere else. When it comes to health, this is hogwash. Accurate health articles are based on scientific literature—which is available to everyone. You may be asked for a credit card number in order to obtain the so-called secret information.

 

  • Miracle cures. If it sounds too good to be true, it is. Don’t open your wallet.

 

  • Claims that the medical establishment is ignoring or actively opposed to the publisher’s point of view. If this is true, it’s probably for good reason.

 

  • Testimonials. Such stories may sound persuasive but are worthless, scientifically speaking. There’s no way to know whether they are true. And even if an individual attributes relief to a specific product or procedure, the so-called cure may be completely unrelated or due to the placebo effect.

 

Check The Privacy Policy

 

Consumer-oriented health sites often request personal information—such as your e-mail address—so they can send you weekly e-newsletters or keep you up to date on specific health concerns. Others encourage you to register so you can take part in online discussion forums.

 

Before you hand over your e-mail or postal address, read the site’s privacy policy. It should indicate how the information will be used; whom it will be shared with, if anyone; what security measures are taken to protect your data; and how you can opt out.

 

If you don’t find such a policy or don’t find the publisher’s statement reassuring, think twice about providing your contact information, date of birth or other personal details. These types of personal information could be used to violate your privacy.

 

Some sites—including WebMD.com—feature a green badge that reads TRUSTe Certified Privacy. This means the site has agreed to use your data responsibly and to fully disclose how it will be used.

 

Look For Accreditation

 

A couple of organizations are working toward reducing the fear factor for people seeking online health information. They offer accreditation, or approval, to sites that meet their standards for content and ethics.

 

Of course, a site may be 100-percent trustworthy yet not have such accreditation.

 

For example, the numerous Web sites run by the federal government’s health agencies. Their credibility is tops without anyone’s stamp of approval.

 

The best-known accreditation is that offered by the Health on the Internet Foundation, or HON. As the Medical Library Association describes it, HON “specifies eight principles intended to hold Web site developers to basic ethical standards and to make sure consumers always know the source and purpose of the data they are reading . . . sites displaying the foundation’s symbol are generally considered credible sources of information.”

 

Accreditation is also offered by URAC (the Utilization Review Accreditation Commission), formerly called the American HealthCare Accreditation Association. URAC-approved sites must meet more than 45 quality and ethics standards.

 

Web publishers that have earned these approvals usually display a corresponding badge or logo somewhere on the Web site, often at the bottom of each page.

 

Sites You Can Trust

 

The Medical Library Association is made up of more than 4,000 information professionals who specialize in the health sciences. If these people approve a site, it’s got to be good.

 

Among their top-10 most useful consumer health sites are the following, listed with their sponsoring organization:

 

  • www.cdc.gov (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

 

  • www.MedlinePlus.gov (U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health)

 

 

 

 

 

These are great places to begin any search for health-related information. But don’t let your digging end there.

 

And never disregard your doctor’s advice or stop or start taking a medication on the basis of what you read online. When in doubt, consult your physician.

 

 

For More Information

 

Learn more about spotting credible health information online by visiting these Web sites.

 

Medical Library Association’s guide to online health information

www.mlanet.org/resources/userguide.html

 

Health on the Net Foundation

www.hon.ch

 

MedlinePlus guide to healthy Web surfing

www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/healthywebsurfing.html