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How To Evaluate Health Information on the Internet: Questions and Answers

Key Points
  • Any website 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 website did not write the material, the website should clearly identify the original source of the information (see Question 4).
  • Health-related websites should give information about the medical credentials of the people who have prepared or reviewed the material on the site (see Question 6).
  • Any website 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 healthcare provider. This fact sheet can help you decide whether the health information you find on the Internet or receive by email is likely to be reliable.

  1. Who runs the website?

    Any website should make it easy for you to learn who is responsible for the site and its information. On the Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS) website, 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 website?

    It costs money to run a website. The source of a website's funding should be clearly stated or readily apparent. For example, the U.S. government funds website with addresses ending in ".gov," educational institutes maintain ".edu" sites, noncommercial organizations' addresses often use ".org," and ".com" denotes a commercial organization. A website'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 website's purpose?

    The person or organization that runs a website and the site's funding sources determine the site's purpose. Many websites have a link to information about the site, often called "About This Site." This webpage should clearly state the purpose of the site and help you evaluate the trustworthiness of the site's information. Although many legitimate websites sell health and medical products, keep in mind that the website 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 website.

  4. What is the original source of the website's information?

    Many health and medical websites post information that the owner has collected from other websites 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 website document the evidence supporting its information?

    Websites 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 website?

    Health-related websites should give information about the medical credentials of the people who prepared or reviewed the material on the website. For example, the ODS website 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 website?

    Experts should review and update the material on websites 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. Websites 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 website owner choose links to other sites?

    Owners of reliable websites usually have a policy governing which links to other sites they post. Some medical websites 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 website'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 website collect, and why?

    Websites routinely track the path users take through their sites to determine what pages people are viewing. However, many health-related websites 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 website owner to collect personal information about the user.

    Any website 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 code, gender, and birth date. Be certain to read and understand any privacy policy or similar language on the site and do not sign up for anything that you do not fully understand.

  10. How does the website manage interactions with users?

    Websites should always offer a way for users to contact the website 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 email?

    Carefully evaluate any email messages you receive that provide health-related information. Consider the message's origin and purpose. Some companies or organizations use email to advertise products or attract people to their websites. A critical eye is warranted if an individual or company is promoting a particular medical product or service in an email 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)external link disclaimer regulates foods, including dietary supplements. The FDA monitors the marketplace for potential illegal products that may be unsafe or make false or misleading claims. FDA publications that can help you evaluate health information include Tips for Dietary Supplement Usersexternal link disclaimer and Health Scamsexternal link disclaimer.

    The Federal Trade Commission (FTC)external link disclaimer 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.

Reviewed: June 24, 2011