September 12, 2007

Can You Trust That Health Website?

A small survey from 2004 suggests that more than 80 percent of women seek health information online.

Meanwhile, a Google search for “women’s health” returns almost 6 million results, the Department of Health and Human Services’s 4parents.gov (intended to help parents talk to teens about sex) has been criticized for inaccuracy both before and after revisions, and an alternative to Wikipedia is being created to combat a perceived lack of credibility and expertise from the online giant.

So how can you make sense of the millions of websites and find online health information that is reliable?

MedlinePlus, from the National Library of Medicine, is often a good starting point, and offers this list of quality criteria health websites should meet to be considered reliable, and this guide to healthy web surfing. The Medical Library Association and the National Cancer Institute offer similar guides.

However, you can’t always trust government websites and sources to tell the whole story, as evidenced by the 4parents.gov controversy (see this July post for background) and reports of agenda-based pressure on the former Surgeon General, Dr. Richard Carmona.

Likewise, non-profit organizations often receive funding from sources that may influence their web content (such as pharmaceutical companies), and individuals may not have a firm grasp on or honest interpretation of the material they present that is drawn from other sources. A site’s purpose may simply be to sell something (such as supplements or weight loss products), limiting the balance of the information presented.

Some basic questions to ask when evaluating the reliability of health information websites:

- Who is the author? What are the author’s credentials? Does the author have an agenda to promote?

- Who pays for the site? Is the site selling something that affects the information it provides?

- Is the information up to date? Information can change quickly, such as new safety data on prescription and over-the-counter drugs. Can you tell when the site was last updated?

- Can you verify the presented facts or opinions? Are there any references that point you to the source of the information? Can you tell what is presented as a fact vs. an opinion?

Sites displaying the HON Code accreditation have met a basic threshold of quality and trustworthiness. Additionally, remember that even when sites present references in support of an agenda, those references may not support their claims when scrutinized.

These basic guidelines should give you a good start, as long as you keep a healthy dose of skepticism while looking for health information online.

Of course, you could always just start with the OBOS Health Resource Center – OBOS provides its own guide to navigating healthcare information, and is part of a coalition that rejects pharmaceutical-dominated approaches to disease in favor of prevention.

Need recommendations for good websites on specific health topics? Leave your questions in the comments!


2 Responses to “Can You Trust That Health Website?”

  1. Ilana Says:

    This posting raises a really important point especially with the incredible rise of reliance on the internet for information. Thanks for the tips about how to evaluate a website’s reliability and validity!

  2. Rachel Says:

    Thanks, llana, I hope it’s helpful!

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