The growing popularity of the Internet has made finding health information easier and faster. Much of the information on the
Internet is valuable; however, the Internet also allows rapid and widespread distribution of false and misleading information.
You should carefully consider the source of information you find on the Internet and discuss that information with your health
care provider. This fact sheet can help you decide whether the health information you find on the Internet or receive by e-mail
is likely to be reliable.
Who runs the Web site?
Any Web site should make it easy for you to learn who is responsible for the site and its information. On the Office of Dietary
Supplements (ODS) Web site, for example, the ODS is clearly noted on every major page, along with a link to the site's homepage.
Who pays for the Web site?
It costs money to run a Web site. The source of a Web site's funding should be clearly stated or readily apparent. For example,
the U.S. government funds Web sites with addresses ending in ".gov," educational institutes maintain ".edu" sites, noncommercial
organizations' addresses often use ".org," and ".com" denotes a commercial organization. A Web site's source of funding can affect
the content it presents, how it presents that content, and what the owner wants to accomplish on the site.
What is the Web site's purpose?
The person or organization that runs a Web site and the site's funding sources determine the site's purpose. Many Web sites
have a link to information about the site, often called "About This Site." This Web page should clearly state the purpose of the
site and help you evaluate the trustworthiness of the site's information. Although many legitimate Web sites sell health and
medical products, keep in mind that the Web site owner's desire to promote a product or service can influence the accuracy of
the health information they present. Looking for another source of health information that is independent and unbiased can help
you validate the accuracy of the material presented on a Web site.
What is the original source of the Web site's information?
Many health and medical Web sites post information that the owner has collected from other Web sites or sources. If the person or
organization in charge of the site did not write the material, they should clearly identify the original source.
How does the Web site document the evidence supporting its information?
Web sites should identify the medical and scientific evidence that supports the material presented on the site. Medical facts and
figures should have references (such as citations of articles published in medical journals). Also, opinions or advice should be clearly
set apart from information that is "evidence based" (that is, based on research results). Testimonials from people who said they have
tried a particular product or service are not evidence based and usually cannot be corroborated.
Who reviewed the information before the owner posted it on the Web site?
Health-related Web sites should give information about the medical credentials of the people who prepared or reviewed the material
on the Web site. For example, the ODS Web site contains fact sheets about vitamins minerals and other dietary supplements. These
documents undergo extensive scientific review by recognized experts from the academic and research communities.
How current is the information on the Web site?
Experts should review and update the material on Web sites on a regular basis. Medical information needs to be current because
medical research is constantly coming up with new information about medical conditions and how best to treat or prevent them. Web
sites should clearly post the most recent update or review date. Even if the information has not changed in a long time, the site
owner should indicate that someone has reviewed it recently to ensure that the information is still valid.
How does the Web site owner choose links to other sites?
Owners of reliable Web sites usually have a policy governing which links to other sites they post. Some medical Web sites take
a conservative approach and do not provide links to any other sites; some sites provide links to any site that asks or pays for a
link; and others provide links only to sites that have met certain criteria. Checking a Web site's linking policy can help you
understand how they choose links to other sites and what they're trying to accomplish by posting those links.
What information about users does the Web site collect, and why?
Web sites routinely track the path users take through their sites to determine what pages people are viewing. However, many
health-related Web sites also ask users to "subscribe" to or "become a member" of the site. Sites sometimes do this to collect
a user fee or select relevant information for the user. The subscription or membership might allow the Web site owner to collect
personal information about the user.
Any Web site asking you for personal information should explain exactly what the site will and will not do with the information.
Many commercial sites sell "aggregate" data—such as what percent of their users take dietary supplements—about their
users to other companies. In some cases, sites collect and reuse information that is "personally identifiable," such as your ZIP
sign up for anything that you do not fully understand.
How does the Web site manage interactions with users?
Web sites should always offer a way for users to contact the Web site owner with problems, feedback, and questions. If the
site hosts a chat room or some other form of online discussion, it should explain the terms of using the service. For example,
the site should explain whether anyone moderates the discussions and, if so, who provides the moderation and what criteria the
moderator uses to determine which comments to accept and which to reject. Always read online discussions before participating
to make sure that you are comfortable with the discussion and with what participants say to one another.
How can you verify the accuracy of information you receive via e-mail?
Carefully evaluate any e-mail messages you receive that provide health-related information. Consider the message's origin
and purpose. Some companies or organizations use e-mail to advertise products or attract people to their Web sites. A critical
eye is warranted if an individual or company is promoting a particular medical product or service in an e-mail without providing
supporting medical evidence.
How does the U.S. federal government protect consumers from false or misleading health claims posted
on the Internet?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates foods, including dietary supplements.
The FDA monitors food product labels, claims, package inserts, and accompanying literature. FDA publications that can help you
evaluate health information include
Tips for Dietary Supplement Users and
FDA 101: Health Fraud Awareness.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) enforces consumer protection laws and regulates dietary
supplement advertising. As part of its mission, the FTC investigates complaints about false or misleading health claims posted
on the Internet.
The Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS) of the National Institutes of Health
stimulates and supports research on dietary supplements, distributes the results of research on dietary supplements, and provides
educational material on dietary supplements, including fact sheets on dietary supplements
and other reliable health information.