Finding and Evaluating Health Information Online
There are many sources of health related information available for free online. Because there are no guidelines for publishing information on the web, sources found through search engines like Google or Bing are unfiltered. It is important to evaluate sources before we accept the information they provide us with as useful and accurate.
When you are evaluating an online source you may wish to start by asking the following four questions composed by the Medical Library Association:
Who is sponsoring the website?
- Can you easily identify the site sponsor? Sponsorship is important because it helps establish the site as respected and dependable. Does the site list advisory board members or consultants? This may give you further insights on the credibility of information published on the site.
- The web address itself can provide additional information about the nature of the site and the sponsor's intent.
- A government agency has .gov in the address.
- An educational institution is indicated by .edu in the address.
- A professional organization such as a scientific or research society will be identified as .org. For example, the American Cancer Society's website is http://www.cancer.org/.
- Commercial sites identified by .com will most often identify the sponsor as a company, for example Merck & Co., the pharmaceutical firm.
What should you know about .com health sites?
Commercial sites may represent a specific company or be sponsored by a company using the web for commercial reasons—to sell products. At the same time, many commercial websites have valuable and credible information. Many hospitals have .com in their address. The site should fully disclose the sponsor of the site, including the identities of commercial and noncommercial organizations that have contributed funding, services, or material to the site.
How often is the site updated?
- The site should be updated frequently. Health information changes constantly as new information is learned about diseases and treatments through research and patient care. websites should reflect the most up-to-date information.
- The website should be consistently available, with the date of the latest revision clearly posted. This usually appears at the bottom of the page.
Does the site present facts and not opinion?
- Information should be presented in a clear manner. It should be factual (not opinion) and capable of being verified from a primary information source such as the professional literature, abstracts, or links to other websites.
- Information represented as an opinion should be clearly stated and the source should be identified as a qualified professional or organization.
Who is the intended audience?
- The website should clearly state whether the information is intended for the consumer or the health professional.
- Many health information websites have two different areas - one for consumers, one for professionals. The design of the site should make selection of one area over the other clear to the user.