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Back To Vidyya 10 Things To Know About Evaluating Medical Resources On The Web

Information For Patients & Practitioners

The number of Web sites offering health-related resources grows every day. Many sites provide valuable information, while others may have information that is unreliable or misleading. This short guide contains important questions you should consider as you look for health information online. Answering these questions when you visit a new site will help you evaluate the information you find. You should be able to quickly find the essential information on each site that allows you to evaluate the resource, and you should be able to quickly decide whether the site will be useful for you. We will be adding a list of additional reading if you want to know more.

1. Who runs this site?

Any good health-related Web site should make it easy for you to learn who is responsible for the site and its information. On cancerTrials, for example, the National Cancer Institute is clearly marked on every major page of the site, along with a link to the NCI homepage. You shouldn’t have to be a cyberdetective to figure this information out.

2. What is the purpose of the site?

This is related to who runs the site, and who pays for the site (see #8 below), but it should be clearly stated; look under “About this site,” or “Mission Statement,” which are common titles for this type of information. If the purpose of the site is not to provide unbiased and accurate health information, you should be particularly careful about how you evaluate what you are reading.

3. Where does the information come from?

Many health/medical sites post information collected from other Websites or from offline sources. If the person or organization in charge of the site did not create the information, the original source should be clearly labelled.

4. What is the basis of the information?

In addition to identifying who wrote the material you are reading, the evidence that material is based on should be provided. Medical facts and figures should have references (such as an article in a medical journal or the consensus of a meeting of experts reviewing research evidence); opinions or advice should be clearly set apart from information that is “evidence-based” (that is, based on research results).

5. How is the information selected?

Is there an editorial board? Do people with excellent medical qualifications review the material before it is posted?

6. How current is the information?

Web sites should be reviewed and updated on a regular basis. This information should be presented on each major page (“this page last updated on 7/9/99”). It is particularly important that medical information be current, and that its most recent update or review date is clearly posted. Even if the information has not changed, you want to know that the site owners have reviewed it recently to ensure that it is still valid.

7. How does the site choose links to other sites?

Web sites usually have a policy (often unstated) about how they establish links to other sites. Many medical sites take a conservative approach and don’t link to any other sites, while some link to any site that asks, or pays, for a link.

8. Who pays for the site?

It costs money to run a Web site. Although some Web sites are labors of love, most have an outside source of funds, and, again, this should be clearly presented on the site. For example, Web addresses ending in “.gov” denote a federal government-sponsored site. You should know how the site pays for its existence; does it sell advertising? Is it sponsored by a drug company? The source of funding can affect what content is presented, how the content is presented, and what the site owners want to accomplish on the site.

9. What information about you does the site collect, and why?

Web sites routinely track the paths visitors take through their sites to determine what pages are being used. However, many health websites ask for you to “subscribe” or “become a member.” In some cases this may be so that they can collect a user fee (see #8) or select information for you that is relevant to your concerns; in all cases this will give the site personal information about you. Any credible health site asking for this kind of information should tell you exactly what they will and will not do with it. Many commercial sites sell “aggregate” data about their users to other companies -- information such as what percentage of their users are women with breast cancer, for example. In some cases they may collect and reuse information that is “personally identifiable,” such as your zip code, gender, and birth date. Be certain that you read and understand any “privacy policy” or similar language on the site, and don’t sign up for anything that you are not sure you fully understand.

10. How does the site manage interactions with visitors?

There should always be a way for you to contact the site owners with problems, feedback, and questions, and someone should respond to your messages in a timely way. If the site hosts chat rooms or other online discussion areas, it should tell visitors what the terms of using this service are; is it moderated? If so, by whom, and why? It is always a good idea to spend time reading the discussion without joining in, so that you feel comfortable with the environment before becoming a participant.

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Editor: Susan K. Boyer, RN
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