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Evaluating Health Websites

This chapter is part of the class, From Snake Oil to Penicillin: Evaluating Consumer Health Information on the Internet, created for the NN/LM by Jo-Ann Benedetti.


Content on the Internet is unregulated; anyone can publish anything on the Internet. There is sound medical information on the Internet along with dangerous information. You need to be able to tell the difference.

Ask yourself the following:

  • Why did the person create the page?
  • What's in it for them?
  • Are they trying to sell me something?

Criteria for evaluating information from the web:

Accuracy

  • Is the information based on sound medical research? Can the information on the web page be verified by another source?
  • Are the sources cited reliable?
  • Are there grammatical and spelling errors?
  • Are there footnotes, bibliographies, or references so that you can verify the information? Are these reliable? (a citation to Parade magazine does not have the same weight as an article from JAMA )

Authority

  • Who published the page? What are the person's credentials? What do you know about them?
  • Is the person backed by a known organization? (the American Association for Cancer Therapy may be a made-up name for something operating out of someone's basement.)
  • Is the person affiliated with a university? If so, is the person a student or a faculty member?
  • Can you easily find contact information on the web page? Check the about us link, usually found at the beginning or the end of a webpage. What does the About Us section tell you about the purpose of the organization? Can you find a physical location for the organization? Or is the only way to contact the organization through a webform?
  • What is the domain name? (.edu, .gov ) Is it a personal page or supported by the organization? The tilde (~) means that the site is a personal page (compare an address like med.harvard.edu/~jsmith/headache to med.harvard.edu/neurology/headache)

Bias/Objectivity

  • Is the information showing just one point of view?
  • What kind of institution sponsored the webpage? A pharmaceutical company? A non-profit organization?
  • Is advertising clearly marked?
  • Can you tell if the information you are reading is advertisement?
  • Do the graphics, fonts, and verbiage play to th emotions? Beware of CAPITAL LETTERS, EXCLAMATION POINTS!!!!! Or words like MIRACLE CURE!!!
  • Is the author using data improperly to promote a position or a product?

Currency/Timeliness

  • Is there a date on the page?
  • When was the page last updated?
  • Do the links work?
  • Has there been more recent research on the subject? Many medical treatments change with the publication of new studies. What was published a year ago may be outdated now.

Coverage

  • Is the information complete?
  • Are there sources given for additional information?

Additional Resources

Quackwatch
http://www.quackwatch.com

MedlinePlus (from the National Library of Medicine)
http://medlineplus.gov (health topic: health fraud)

MedlinePlus Guide to Healthy Web Surfing
http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/healthywebsurfing.html

Is This Health Information Good For Me? (from the National Network of Libraries of Medicine Pacific Northwest Region)
http://nnlm.gov/pnr/hip/criteria.html

Update Author:

Karen Vargas, Consumer Health Coordinator, National Network of Libraries of Medicine South Central Region, Houston, TX