Evaluating Online Health Information

The number of websites offering health-related resources grows every day. Many online health resources are useful, but others may present information that is inaccurate or misleading, so it’s important to find sources you can trust and to know how to evaluate their content. This guide provides tips for finding reliable websites and outlines things to consider when evaluating health information from websites and social media sources.

Checking Out a Health Website: Five Quick Questions

If you’re visiting a health website for the first time, these five quick questions can help you decide whether the site is a helpful resource.

Who?

Who runs the website? Can you trust them?

Any reliable health-related website should make it easy for you to learn who’s responsible for the site. If it isn’t obvious who runs the website, look for a link on the homepage to an “About Us” page.

You can also learn about who runs a website by looking at the letters at the end of its web address. For example, web addresses that end in “.gov” mean it’s a government-sponsored site; “.edu” indicates an educational institution, “.org” a noncommercial organization, and “.com” a commercial organization.

You should know how the site supports itself. Is it funded by the organization that sponsors it? Does it sell advertising? Is it sponsored by a company that sells dietary supplements, drugs, or other products or services? The source of funding can affect what content is presented, how it’s presented, and what the site owners want to accomplish.

What?

What does the site say? Do its claims seem too good to be true?

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. You can be more confident in the quality of medical information on a website if people with credible professional and scientific qualifications review the material before it’s posted. Some websites have an editorial board that reviews content. Others put the names and credentials of the individuals who reviewed a web page in an Acknowledgments section near the end of the page.

When?

When was the information posted or reviewed? Is it up-to-date?

Some types of outdated medical information can be misleading or even dangerous. Responsible health websites review and update much of their content on a regular basis. To find out whether information on a web page is old or new, look for a date on the page (it’s often near the bottom).

Where?

Where did the information come from? Is it based on scientific research?

Many health/medical sites post information collected from other websites or sources. If the person or organization in charge of the site didn’t create the material, the original source should be clearly identified.

In addition to identifying the source of the material you’re reading, the site should describe the evidence (such as articles in medical journals) that the material is based on. Also, opinions or advice should be clearly set apart from information that’s “evidence-based” (that is, based on research results). Keep in mind that testimonials, anecdotes, unsupported claims, and opinions aren’t the same as objective, evidence-based information.

Why?

Why does the site exist? Is it selling something?

The site’s purpose is related to who runs and pays for it. The About Us page should include a clear statement of purpose. To be sure you’re getting reliable information, you should confirm information that you find on any sales sites by consulting other, independent sites where no products are sold. Be especially wary of advertising posing as news. If you suspect that a news site is fake, look for a disclaimer somewhere on the page (often in small print) that indicates that the site is an advertisement.

Adapted from the National Institutes of Health.

These resources provide additional information about evaluating websites:

Medline Plus Guide to Healthy Web Surfing – medlineplus.gov/healthywebsurfing.htm

Trust It or Trash It? – www.trustortrash.org An interactive tool that helps you determine whether a site is trustworthy or not.