How to Evaluate Online Health Information

A national survey from the PEW Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project (released Jan. 2013) reported that one in three American adults surveyed had gone online to try to figure out what kind of medical condition they or someone else might have. Of these “online diagnosers,” 46 percent sought professional attention about the condition and 41 percent reported that a medical professional confirmed their diagnosis. The survey did not investigate whether the information people found online was accurate, unbiased, or based on a clear body of evidence.

How does a person know whether online health information is valid? According to guidelines from the Food and Drug Administration, there are eleven key questions to ask of a health-related website before believing what you read.

  1. Who runs the site? – Information about who runs the site can often be found in an “About Us”  section. There is usually a link to that section on the Web site’s home page.
  2. What is the purpose? – Find out whether the website is trying to sell a product or raise money? Finding out who runs and pays for the site will help users to evaluate the purpose and the information used to support that purpose.
  3. What is the original source of information? Many websites post information collected from other sources. The original source should be clearly identified. Be careful of sites that don’t say where the information comes from. Be wary of commercial sites and those selling products.
  4. How is the information documented? In addition to knowing the source of the information, facts and figures should always be referenced, such as citations from medical journals or other reputable sources. Opinions or advice should be clearly set apart from information that based on evidence and research results.
  5. How is information reviewed before it is posted? Health-related sites should give information about the credentials of those who prepare or review the material. Are they qualified? Do they have the expertise to evaluate the information presented?
  6. How current is the information? Web sites should be reviewed and updated on a regular basis. It is especially important that medical information be current, and that the most recent update or review date be clearly posted. These dates are usually found at the bottom of the page. Even if the information has not changed, it is helpful to know that the site owners have reviewed it recently to ensure that the information is still valid. 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.
  7. How does the site choose links to other sites? Some medical sites take a conservative approach and do not link to any other sites; some link to any site that asks or pays for a link; others link only to sites that have met certain criteria. Look for the linking policy, often found in the “About This Web Site” section.
  8. What information about its visitors does the site collect, and why? Websites often track visitors to identify what pages are used. Some also ask visitors to “subscribe” or “become a member,” which allows the site to collect personal information, such as name and zip code, perhaps even gender or birth date. Websites that ask for personal information should explain what the site will do, and will not do, with that information. Be sure to read and understand the website’s privacy policy.
  9. How does the site manage interactions with visitors? There should always be a way for visitors to contact the site owners with problems, feedback, and questions. This information is often on the site’s Contact Us page. If the site hosts a chat room or online discussion areas, it should tell its visitors about the service. Is the service moderated? If so, by whom, and why? Read the discussion before becoming a participant.
  10. Can the accuracy of information received in an e-mail be verified? Some companies or organizations use e-mail to advertise products or attract people to their websites. The desire to promote a product or service may influence the accuracy of the information. Always consider the source and the purpose of email messages.
  11. Is the information that’s discussed in chat rooms accurate? Most Internet service providers do not verify what is discussed in discussion groups, and people do not necessarily know the qualifications or credentials of the other people in the discussion. People may use these groups to promote products. Sometimes they spread misinformation. Sometimes they provide good information about specific diseases or disorders. Be sure to discuss what you learn from these groups with credible health care professionals.

Even with clear answers to these questions, it is sometimes difficult to make sense of health information, particularly when it involves conflicting data or scientific controversies. Immersing yourself in the health issues that are most important to you is one way to get a handle on the changing nature of scientific information and its impact on medical protocols and practice.

Source: Susannah Fox and Maeve Duggan. 2013. “Health Online 2013,” Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, Washington, D.C. 20036. [Jan.] URL: http://pewinternet.org/~/media//Files/Reports/PIP_HealthOnline.pdf, Accessed July 6, 2013.

Refer to this glossary of terms when reading health news or research studies.

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