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July 2005

NHM Health Focus: Reliable Health Information

Health Web sites Reviewed

Finding and Evaluating Health Information

Tools and tutorials

You've just heard something about an interesting health matter on the evening news, or from a friend, or from your doctor. You want to know more about it and you want to use the Internet for your research. But, you really haven’t done much online health and medical searching.

What do you need to be aware of to begin a successful search?

First, since there is an astonishing number of sources of medical and health information on the Web, you need some advice to keep you from being overwhelmed with information.

Second, once you find information that appears to address your interest, you need to know how to assess its quality and reliability.

But before you start looking, you may want to review some of the common problems encountered by people searching online for medical information.

For example, a major 2004 study by URAC and Consumer Web Watch looked at issues in online healthcare information searching and found four barriers:

“Many consumers' ability to locate and evaluate health information online is hindered by access barriers for older, less well off, disabled, and non-English speaking Americans.

“Many people also lack critical thinking skills, having problems distinguishing credible health information from that which is not trustworthy.

“Many web sites contain inaccurate, outdated or incomplete information.  And,

“Many consumers had a lack of knowledge about how search engines retrieve results, and didn't realize that paid placements listings can be featured prominently on search engine result pages without regard to quality.”

Once you have a sense of the limitations of a Web search, you may want to use tips that help you navigate the Web more efficiently. For example, the University of California, Berkeley Library tutorial details a "Five Step Search Strategy, part of their tutorial, "Finding Information on the Internet."

You may also want to ask yourself what you already know about the subject and start your search from that point forward. As you find additional information, and learn new terms related to your topic, you can use this information to enhance future searches.

There are numerous ways to assess the quality and reliability of the information found at an online resource.  Criteria by which Web sites are evaluated vary, but generally include:

  • Authority – Who are the authors, editors, experts? What are the credentials of the organization providing the information? Is the same information found on two or more respected, independent sites?
  • Currency - How recently was the material posted or reviewed?
  • Purpose - What is the purpose of the posting or the source?  To educate?  To sell a product?
  • Audience - Who is primary target for the information found on this site?
  • Readability - Can the material be read by members of the target audience?
  • Organization - Is the site organized in a logical manner? Is it easily navigated?
  • Site Maintenance - When was the site last updated? Does the site have numerous broken links?
  • Site Sponsorship - Who is paying to have this material on the web? Why? (What does the "About Us" section say?)
  • Contact Information - Is contact information posted. Does the site have a phone number? a physical address?

Another strategy for rating a site uses a series of simple yes-or-no questions.  Each "yes" answer is considered a warning to users that the Web site may contain information that should be further validated.  Here are four questions suggested by one organization:

  • Is online purchasing permitted?
  • Are "patient testimonials" available?
  • Is the treatment described as a "cure"?
  • Is the treatment described as "having no side effects"?

Does the fact that a site is popular mean that the quality of posted information is reliable? Popularity is not a guarantee of high quality or medical reliability.  In one of the most extensive studies of its kind,  Consumer Reports and the Health Improvement Institute reviewed and evaluated the twenty most visited health information sites on the Web.  An evaluation of each is posted at Health Website Ratings.

Web sites that have been named by observers as having high standards for objectivity, accuracy and quality of health resources, but not included in the twenty most visited, include:

For more about how to use the Internet to find and evaluate health information, the following free tutorials may be helpful.

  • The Internet Medic (BIOME) is a free, "teach yourself" tutorial that lets you practice your Internet Information Skills.

  • QUICK (HDA) targets a younger audience, as it serves as an educational aid for individuals of all ages. Evaluation criteria are presented in a checklist of questions and answers, with examples to illustrate each point.

  • Finding Information on the Internet: A Tutorial (UCB Library) targets advanced students and researchers.

Once you have located what you were looking for, determined that the site posted reliable and accurate information, and confirmed the information using unrelated sources, you may want to review the information found in "Tips for Understanding Popular Medical Information" (UConnHC).

Finally, share what you have learned with your health professional so together you can plan a course of action. Never act on information found on the Web without first conferring with your doctor.