Evaluating Internet Health Information: A Tutorial from the National Library of Medicine
This tutorial will teach you how to evaluate health information found on the internet. Using the internet to find health information is like going on a treasure hunt. You could find some real gems, but you could also end up in some strange and dangerous places!
So how can you tell if a Web site is reliable? There are a few quick steps you can take to check out a Web site. Let's consider the clues to look for when checking out Web sites.
When you visit a Web site, you'll want to ask the following questions:
- Who runs the site?
- Why have they created the site?
- What do they want from you?
- Who is paying for the site? Does the site's information favor the sponsor?
- Is the information reviewed by experts?
- Where did the information come from?
- Does the site make unbelievable claims?
- Is it up-to-date?
- Do "they" want your personal information? What will "they" do with it?
Answering each of these questions gives you clues about the quality of the information on the site.
You can usually find the answers on the main page or the "About Us" page of a Web site. Site maps can also be helpful.
Let's say your doctor just told you that you have high cholesterol.
You want to learn more about it before your next doctor's appointment, and you have started with the Internet.
Let's say that you found these two Web sites. (They are not real sites).
Anyone can put up a Web page. You want a trusted source. First, find out who is running the site.
This one is from the Physicians Academy for Better Health. But you can't go by the name alone. You need more clues about who created the site and why.
Here is the 'About Us' link. This should be your first stop in the search for clues. It should say who is running the Web site, and why.
From this page, we learn that the organization's mission is to "educate the public on disease prevention and healthy living."
This site is run by health care professionals, including some who specialize in heart health.
This is important since you want to receive heart-related information from experts on the subject.
Next, check to see if there is a way to contact the organization running the site.
This site provides an e-mail address, a mailing address, and a phone number.
Now let's go to the other site and look for the same clues.
The Institute for a Healthier Heart runs this Web site.
Here is an "About this Site" link.
This page says that the Institute consists of "individuals and businesses concerned with heart health."
Who are these individuals? Who are these businesses? It does not say. Sometimes missing pieces of information can be important clues!
The Institute's mission is "to provide the public with heart health information and to offer related services."
Are these services free? The unspoken purpose might be to sell you something.
If you keep reading, you'll find it says that a company that makes vitamins and medications helps to sponsor the site.
The site might favor that particular company and its products.
What about contact information? There is an e-mail address for the Webmaster, but no other contact information is provided.
Here's a link to an online shop that allows visitors to purchase products.
A site's main purpose may be to sell you something and not just to offer information.
But the site may not explain this directly. You need to investigate!
The online store includes items from the drug company that funds the site. Keep this in mind as you browse the site.
The clue suggests that the site might have a preference for the drug company or its products.
Check to see if there are advertisements on the sites. If so, can you tell the ads from the health information?
Both of these sites have advertisements.
On the Physicians Academy page, the ad is clearly labeled as an advertisement.
You can easily tell it apart from the content on the page.
On the other site, this advertisement is not identified as an ad.
It is hard to tell the difference between the ad and the content. This may be done to encourage you to buy something.
You now have some clues about who is publishing each site and why. But how can you tell if the information is high-quality?
Look at where the information comes from or who writes it.
Phrases like "editorial board," "selection policy," or "review process" can point you in the right direction. Let's see if these clues are provided on each Web site.
Let's go back to the "About Us" page of the Physicians Academy for Better Health Web site.
The Board of Directors reviews all medical information before it is posted on the Web site.
We learned earlier that they are trained medical professionals, usually M.D.s.
They only approve information that meets their rules for quality.
Let's see if we can find this information on the other Web site.
You know that a "group of individuals and businesses" is running this site. But you don't know who these individuals are, or if they are medical experts.
You learned from earlier clues that a drug company sponsors the site. It is possible that this group writes information for the Web site in order to promote the company and its products.
Even if experts review the information that is posted on a site, you should continue to ask questions.
Look for hints about where the information came from. Good sites should rely on medical research, not opinion.
It should be clear who wrote the content. Check to see if the original sources of the data and research are listed.
This site provides some background data and identifies the source.
Information written by others is clearly labeled.
On the other Web site, we see a page that mentions a research study.
Yet there are no details about who conducted the study, or when it was done. You have no way of verifying their information.
Here are some other hints: Look at the general tone of the information. Is it too emotional? Does it sound too good to be true?
Be cautious about sites that make unbelievable claims or promote "miracle cures."
Neither of these sites present information this way.
Next, check to see if the information is current. Out-of-date information can be hazardous to your health. It may not reflect the latest research or treatments.
Look for some sign that the site is reviewed and updated regularly.
Here is an important clue. The information on this site was reviewed recently.
There are no dates on this site's pages. You do not know if the information is current.
On this site, users can sign up for an e-mail newsletter. This requires that you share your name and e-mail address.
Only sign up for the newsletter if you are comfortable with how your information will be used.
The Institute collects information about everyone who visits their Web site.
This site promotes a "membership" option. You can sign up to join the Institute and receive special offers.
And as you saw earlier, a store on this site allows you to buy products.
If you do either of these, you will be giving the Institute your personal information.
Only share your information if you are comfortable with how it will be used.
The Internet provides you with immediate access to health information. But you need to distinguish the good sites from the bad.
Let's review the clues to quality by looking at our two fictional Web sites:
- is run by experts
- has a clearly stated purpose
- labels advertising
- reviews information before posting it
- explains the sources of data and research
- is up-to-date
- and will not share personal information
- does not explain who is running it
- may favor its sponsor
- has an unclear purpose
- does not label advertising
- does not describe how information is added
- does not identify the sources of information
- does not tell how old the information is
- and might share your personal information with others
The Physicians Academy for Better Health Web site is more likely to be a reliable source of information.
Be sure to look for these clues as you search online. Your health could depend on it.
We have made a checklist of questions to ask when browsing Web sites.
Each question will lead you to clues about the quality of the information on the site. You will usually find the answers on the home page and in an "About Us" area.
Section 1 examines the provider.
- Who is in charge of the Web site?
- Why are they providing the site?
- Can you contact them?
Section 2 looks at the funding.
- Where does the money to support the site come from?
- Does the site have advertisements? Are they labeled?
Section 3 evaluates the quality.
- Where does the information on the site come from?
- How is content selected?
- Do experts review the information that goes on the site?
- Does the site avoid unbelievable or emotional claims?
- Is it up-to-date?
Privacy is the focus of Section 4.
- Does the site ask for your personal information?
- Do they tell you how it will be used?
- Are you comfortable with how it will be used?
You can also print this checklist.
Asking these questions will help you find quality Web sites. But there is no guarantee that the information is perfect.
Review several high-quality Web sites to see if similar information appears in a number of places. Looking at many good sites will also give you a wider view of a health issue.
And remember that online information is not a substitute for medial advice — consult a health professional before taking any of the advice that you have found online.
If you are looking for information to follow up on what your doctor has told you, share what you find with your doctor at your next visit.
Patient/provider partnerships lead to the best medical decisions.
For more details on how to evaluate health Web sites, visit the MedlinePlus page on Evaluating Health Information at https://medlineplus.gov/evaluatinghealthinformation.html
This resource is provided to you by the National Library of Medicine. We invite you to link to this tutorial from your Web site.