How To Evaluate Health Information on the Internet: Questions and Answers
- Any Web site should make it easy for you to learn who is responsible for the site and its information (see Question 1).
- If the person or organization in charge of the Web site did not write the material, the Web site should clearly identify the original source of the information (see Question 4).
- Health-related Web sites should give information about the medical credentials of the people who have prepared or reviewed the material on the site (see Question 6).
- Any Web site that asks you for personal information should explain exactly what the site will and will not do with that information (see Question 9).
- The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Federal Trade Commission are federal government agencies that help protect consumers from false or misleading health claims on the Internet (see Question 12).
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.
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. 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.
8. 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.
9. 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.
10. 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.
11. 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.
12. 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 the Savvy Supplement User: Making Informed Decisions 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 FTC's Operations Cure-All page can help you evaluate health product claims.
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.