Saturday, September 10, 2005

Which medical websites can you trust ?

Here are some excellent guidelines from the Cancer Information Service.

The growing popularity of the Internet has made it easier and faster to find health-related information. Although much of it is valuable, some of it is false and misleading. This fact sheet can help you decide whether information you find on the Internet or receive via e-mail is likely to be reliable.

Who runs the Web site? Any Web site should indicate clearly and often who is responsible for the site and its information. On the National Cancer Institute’s Web site (, for example, the NCI is clearly noted on every major page, along with a link to the site’s home page.

Who pays for the Web site? It costs money to run a Web site. The source of funding should be clearly stated or readily apparent. For instance, Web addresses ending in .gov are sponsored by the federal government; .edu indicates educational institutions; .org is often used by noncommercial groups; and .com denotes commercial enterprises. The source of funding can affect what content is presented, how it’s presented, and what the site owners want to accomplish.

What is the purpose of the Web site? This is related to who runs and pays for it. Many Web sites have a link to information about the site. The link, often called “About This Site” or “About Us,” should clearly state the purpose and help users evaluate the trustworthiness of the information.

What is the original source of the information? Many health and medical Web sites post information collected from other Web sites or sources. If the person or organization in charge of the site did not write the material, the original source should be clearly identified.

How is the information documented? In addition to identifying the original source of the material, the site should identify the evidence on which the material is based. Medical facts and figures should have references (such as citations of articles in medical journals). Also, opinions or advice should be clearly set apart from information that is evidence-based (that is, based on research results).

How is information reviewed before it is posted? Health-related Web sites should give information about the medical credentials of the people who prepare or review the material.

How current is the information? Web sites should be reviewed and updated regularly. It’s particularly important that medical information be current, and that the most recent update or review date be posted. Even if the information hasn’t changed, it’s helpful to know that the site owners have reviewed it recently to ensure that it’s still valid.

How does the Web site choose links to other sites? Reliable Web sites usually have a policy about how they establish links to other sites. Some medical Web sites take a conservative approach and don’t link to other sites. Some link to any site that asks or pays for a link. Others link only to sites that have met certain criteria.

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 are being used. However, many health-related Web sites ask the user to “subscribe” or “become a
member.” This may be done so the Web site’s owners can collect a user fee or select relevant information for you. The subscription or membership will allow the site’s owners to collect personal information about you. Any Web site asking users for personal information should explain exactly what the site will and won’t do with the information. Many commercial sites sell “aggregate” data about their users to other companies—information such as what percent of their users are women with breast cancer. In some cases, they may collect and reuse information that is “personally identifiable,” such as the user’s ZIP Code, gender, and birth date. Be certain that you read and understand any privacy policy or similar language on the site, and don’t sign up for anything you don’t fully understand.

How does the Web site manage interactions with users? There should always be a way for users to contact the Web site owners with problems, feedback, and questions. If the site hosts a chat room or other online discussion areas, it should tell users about the terms of using the service. Is the service moderated? If so, by whom, and why? Before you decide whether to become a participant, spend some time reading the discussion without joining in.

How can you verify the accuracy of information you receive via e-mail? Any e-mail messages should be carefully evaluated. The origin of the message and its purpose should be considered. Some companies or organizations use e-mail to advertise products or attract people to their Web sites. The accuracy of health-related information may be influenced by the desire to promote a product or service. It’s important to carefully consider the source of e-mail and other Internet-based information and to discuss the information with your physician.

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