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Surf’s Up!

Isn’t it hard to resist those health websites whose alluring promises pop up all time, distracting you from your work?  The ones that will whiten your teeth with a penny’s worth of common household items, solve any unsightly fungus with VapoRub and banish belly flab forever while curing cancer and sleep apnea, too?  Where do they come from and what do they want?

Your attention, of course, and (eventually) your money.  So here is a quick little guide to what you should look for when evaluating the quality of health information on websites:

Consider the source

Stick with proper, recognizable authorities, something that is getting harder and harder to do.  You’ve got to know just who is responsible for the content of the sites you are using.

  • First, find the ‘about us’ page.  Check it to see who runs the site.  A non-profit group? A branch of the federal government? A professional healthcare system or major hospital? An individual?  A commercial enterprise?
  • A website should have a way for you to get in touch with the sponsoring organization or webmaster. If you cannot easily find contact information, or if there is none at all, proceed with caution.
  • You already know this, but there is a big difference between a site that announces, “I developed this site after my cancer diagnosis” and one that says, “These pages on breast cancer were developed by health professionals at the Mayo Clinic.”

Focus on quality

All websites are not created equal.  Does the site in question have an editorial board?  Does anyone review the material before it is posted?

  • This kind of information is usually found on the ‘about us’ page.   It may also be under the mission statement for the organization or in the annual report.
  • Are any board members experts or respected authorities in the subject of the site? A site on heart disease whose medical advisory board is composed of attorneys and accountants is not medically authoritative, for example.
  • How does information get to the site?  Is there a published ‘selection policy’ or ‘review policy’?
  • Is there any section with information ‘about our contributors’ or ‘about our authors’?  If yes, review that section so you know who’s who.
Look for evidence

This is tough, but always rely on medical research, not opinion.  Remind yourself just exactly what a testimonial is and pay attention to what is not said as well as to what is said.

  • Be sure to look for the author of any articles, with an individual or an organization.  ‘Written by Jane Smith, MD,’ or ‘Copyrighted by the American Lung Association’ are good examples.
  • Case histories and testimonials should have contact email addresses or phone numbers with them — if anyone is too hard to find or if the submission is anonymous, proceed with real caution.

Be skeptical

As the US National Library of Medicine puts it, ‘quackery abounds on the web’.

  •  If a claim sounds too good to be true, rest assured it is.  Be wary of ‘breakthroughs’ and the ever-popular ‘secret ingredient’.
  • Scientific-sounding language is not the same thing as science.
  • Sensational writing style was a no-no when you were in seventh grade, and it still is.
  • A good health site for consumers will use clear, simple language, not lots of technical talk or  jargon.
  • Check other sites for a second opinion.

Check for currency

Is the information current, up-to-date?

  • Look for dates on the documents.  Obviously, a piece on coping with loss or grief does not have to be current to be helpful, but something on statin drugs or hip implants does.
  • See if the site’s links are working.  If there are lots of broken ones, the site may not be kept up-to-date.

Check carefully for bias

Just exactly what is the purpose of the site you’ve landed on? Who is paying for it?

  • Is the site supported by public funds, donations or by commercial advertising?
  • All advertisements should be labeled.  They should say ‘from our sponsor’ or ‘advertisement’.  Clearly.
  • Can you tell from the site what pages are coming from advertisers and what pages are coming from a non-commercial source? For example, is the maker of a specific drug for the treatment of depression sponsoring that page?  If yes, check other sources to see what they are saying about that particular drug.

Always protect your privacy

Health information should always be strictly confidential.  Does the site you are visiting have a privacy policy?  What information are they collecting?

  • There should be a link to a ‘privacy’ or ‘privacy policy’ page.  Read this information carefully.  If they say they share information with companies that could offer you useful products, then your stuff is not private.
  • Be really cautious with registration forms.  If you are required to put  in any personal information (credit card, mother’s maiden name, gender, date of birth, address and so on) go back and re-read that privacy policy before you go any further.

Of course, the best plan is to consult with your health professional about any questions or concerns you have about drugs, treatment, symptoms and so on.  You might even bring along some of the information you’ve come across online so your doctor can review it with you – but don’t get carried away and print out a whole ream’s worth!  And your provider may have some sites they trust to recommend.

Special thanks to the US Department of Health and Human Services and MedlinePlus.

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