The internet is now a source of health information for millions of people. Patients and their familities should know if the information is factual, accurate, current, and complete.
A good place to start is to determine who owns, operates, and pays for the site. If it is run by a government agency, the website address will end with “.gov.” These sites have no profit motive and nothing to sell, and many of the agency names are often recognizable. Among them are the Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Addresses for educational institutions end with “.edu” and include universities and colleges that have been accredited by agencies approved by the U. S. Department of Education. Although the “.org” domain was originally intended for noncommercial and nonprofit organizations, there are no restrictions on registrations. If a “.org” site is owned by a nonprofit organization or one without a vested commercial interest, it is worth investigating further to determine if it is a legitimate source. The goal is to find impartial sources that have nothing to gain by the advice and information that is provided on the site.
Addresses ending with “.com” are predominantly commercially-oriented and are funded by companies with a financial incentive to get you to their site. They will often feature advertising and items for sale, in addition to the information that you are seeking. The fact that these companies exist to make money does not necessarily mean that the information is invalid or unreliable, but that you should take additional steps to verify their credibility.
Most websites feature an “about us” page that provides background information that should be studied in detail. Always read it and find out about the people in charge, and whether or not there is a governing editorial board that performs periodic reviews. You want to know who wrote the website content and the basis for the information. Check the credentials of the authors by searching for information verifying their medical degrees, board memberships, and professional associations. If a doctor or certified medical expert didn’t write the article, ensure that the information was reviewed by one.
Some examples of respected original sources are medical journals, hospitals, medical schools, licensed physicians, and research institutions. Check to make sure that the website distinguishes between opinion pieces and those that are based on real evidence acquired through documented research with applicable citations. Opinions from reliable sources should not necessarily be discounted, but it’s important to understand what is factually-based and supported by independent studies and clinical trials. The best approach is to be skeptical from the outset, and use a critical eye when evaluating the website’s mission, purpose, and reason for the site’s existence.
Websites are often filled with statistics and other quantitative data regarding diseases and health issues, and the source of such data should be clearly identified. If it came from another website, then that site should be checked as well. If the source is not provided or is questionable, then relying on the data may be risky.
You want information that is current, so look to see if the article is dated. It may also show if the original article has been updated or reviewed. Since medical technology changes dramatically over time, it’s important to know that you are dealing with the latest information available. If the date is not shown, consider another source.
Also be wary of sites that display sponsored advertisements or require you to subscribe by providing your personal information. Many sites provide links to other sites, but such links do not carry an automatic endorsement of their respective content. It’s common for sites to be paid each time you click on an ad or link, and they may not discriminate or have control over what ads are presented. If graphics and multimedia links such as videos are presented, they should receive the same scrutiny.
Should you decide to subscribe to a site, review the privacy statement and purpose for the information that is requested. If you elect to participate in any discussion forums, choose a username that is not your real name and don’t disclose any identifying information. Also make sure there is a way to easily contact the site owner, including a verifiable mailing address and telephone number.
Oversight and enforcement
The agency responsible for enforcement of consumer protection laws is the Federal Trade Commission. Its mission includes the investigation of misleading and false health claims made on the internet. The Food and Drug Administration is responsible for the safety and efficacy of drugs and medical devices. Both agencies can be contacted directly regarding health and safety concerns, and possible violations of consumer protection laws. Your family doctor should also be consulted if you have any doubts about medical information obtained from the internet.