How to Evaluate Health Information Found on the Internet

Some Tips from the FDA:

While written with drug information in mind, these points apply to health and medical information in general, too.

FDA staff and others familiar with Internet medical offerings suggest asking the following questions to help determine the reliability of a Web site:

  • Who maintains the site? Government or university-run sites are among the best sources for scientifically sound health and medical information. Private practitioners or lay organizations may have marketing, social or political agendas that can influence the type of material they offer on-site and which sites they link to.
  • Is there an editorial board or another listing of the names and credentials of those responsible for preparing and viewing the site's contents? Can these people be contacted by phone or through E-mail if visitors to the site have questions or want additional information?
  • Does the site link to other sources of medical information? No reputable organization will position itself as the sole source of information on a particular health topic. On the other hand, links alone are not a guarantee of reliability, notes Lorrie Harrison of FDA's Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research. Since anyone with a Web page can create links to any other site on the Internet - and the owner of the site that is "linked to" has no say over who links to it - then a person offering suspect medical advice could conceivably try to make his or her advice appear legitimate by, say, creating a link to FDA's Web site. What's more, health information produced by FDA or other government agencies is not copyrighted; therefore, someone can quote FDA's information at a site and be perfectly within his or her rights. By citing a source such as FDA, experienced marketers using careful wording can make it appear as though FDA endorses their products, Harrison explains.
  • When was the site last updated? Generally, the more current the site, the more likely it is to provide timely material. Ideally, health and medical sites should be updated weekly or monthly.
  • Are informative graphics and multimedia files such as video or audio clips available? Such features can assist in clarifying medical conditions and procedures. For example, the University of Pennsylvania's cancer information site, called OncoLink, contains graphics of what a woman can expect during a pelvic exam. Bear in mind, however, that multimedia should be used to help explain medical information, not substitute for it. Some sites provide dazzling "bells and whistles" but little scientifically sound information.
  • •Does the site charge an access fee? Many reputable sites with health and medical information, including FDA and other government sites, offer access and materials for free. If a site does charge a fee, be sure that it offers value for the money. Use a searcher (see "Sources of Internet Health Information") to see whether you can get the same information without paying additional fees.
  • If you find something of interest at a site - say, a new drug touted to relieve disease symptoms with fewer side effects - write down the name and address of the site, print out the information, and bring it to your doctor, advises Valencia Camp of FDA's Office of Information Resources Management. Your doctor can help determine whether the information is supported by legitimate research sources, such as journal articles or proceedings from a scientific meeting. In addition, your doctor can determine if the drug is appropriate for your situation. Even if the information comes from a source that is reputed to be reliable, you should check with your doctor to make sure that it is wise for you to begin a certain treatment. Specific situations (such as taking other drugs) may make the therapy an inadvisable choice. Your doctor can decide whether the drug is suitable for you and may be able to offer more appropriate alternatives.

— From FDA Consumer June 1996, reprinted with permission.

Barnard Student Health Services adds:

Information overload can be hazardous to your health! Evaluating the quality of an internet medical site should be used as a filter to exclude information that may be unreliable, and therefore confusing, or even harmful. Here are some additional tips to add to those provided by the FDA.

  • Consider the goals of the website in evaluating the information received. If you are getting information from discussion groups or chat rooms, treat it as conversation. Conversation should be verified by reliable sources.
  • Be cautious of sites that do not identify their affiliation, perspective, or source of information. Consider who is paying for the site; how might that affect the information offered?
  • Verify information, particularly if it is new or different. This may require a trip to the medical literature (Grateful Med link).
  • Look for sites that are reviewed by health professionals. Look for a listing of the editorial board or academic affiliation.

Finally, review the information with a health care provider who knows YOU, and can help you put what you have learned into perspective.

Happy Surfing!