Health Website Evaluation: Ask Five Quick Questions

Health Website Evaluation: Ask Five Quick Questions

By Evelyn Cunico, M.A., M.S.

Posted January 29, 2014

 

The five questions that guide journalists as they investigate the facts of an event can also guide your search, as you gather factual consumer health information.

When evaluating a health website, start with these five “W’s” – Who? What? When? Where? Why?

Who sponsors and pays for the website?

  • If a health website address ends in “.gov” or “.edu,” the source of the site is either government or an educational institution. Generally, government or educational sites are trustworthy

  • Personal pages on an educational site are not necessarily trustworthy, even when the address ends in “.edu.” The tilde symbol (~) means that the site is a personal page. For example, compare “med.harvard.edu/~jsmith/headache” with “med.harvard.edu/neurology/headache”

  • Although the sites of noncommercial organizations end in “.org,” some sites promote a specific agenda, so their content may be biased.

  • The “About Us” tab describes the purpose of the website. Look to find if there is a phone number or an e-mail address for direct contact.

What is the basis of the website information?

  • The health website information should be “evidence-based.” This means the information is based on the results of scientific research. Look for references, such as a list of medical journal articles, or footnotes, to verify the information. Remember that opinions are not objective, evidence-based information.

  • Often, health websites are reviewed by an editorial board of medical or science professionals. Look for the names and credentials of reviewers in a section called, “Acknowledgements,” near the bottom of the webpage.

When was the information published?

  • Information should be current. When new studies are published, medical treatments sometimes change. A webpage published a year ago may no longer be accurate. Near the bottom of the page, find when the page was last updated.

  • Look at the health website tabs at the top of the homepage. Browse for “Factsheets” or FAQs” (frequently asked questions) that include a current date near the bottom of the webpages.

  • When clicking on internal links on a website, make sure all the links work. Active links are one sign that the website information is current.

Where do the external links lead?

  • Health websites often link to external websites, for additional information. When you click on a link that leads to an external website, you are exiting the website on which you started your search.

  • When you arrive at a new website destination, you should not assume that the new website is necessarily reliable. You should evaluate the linked website, just as you would any website you are visiting.

Why does a health website exist?

  • If a health website asks you to “subscribe,” the reason may be so that the site can collect a user fee from you. Or, the site may be selling something.

  • A credible health site asking for personal information should tell you what it will and will not do with the information. Website “privacy policies” are usually linked from the bottom of the website homepage.

Caution: When researching a health topic, check two or more website sources. In addition, ask your healthcare professional about your specific circumstances, because communication between you and your provider will create your best health outcome.

References

Much of this blog relies on information from the following government health websites:

MedlinePlus. “Evaluating Health Information.”
Accessed January 20, 2014.

MedlinePlus. “Guide to Healthy Web Surfing: MedlinePlus.”
Accessed January 20, 2014.

National Institutes of Health. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). “Finding and Evaluating Online Resources on Complementary Health Approaches.”
Accessed January 20, 2014

National Institutes of Health. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). “NCCAM Web Site Information and Policies | NCCAM”
Accessed January 27, 2014.

National Network of Libraries of Medicine. “Evaluating Health Websites.”
Accessed January 20, 2014.

A disclaimer: the information presented in this blog should not replace the medical advice of your physician. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat any disease without first consulting with your physician or other health care provider.

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