How to Evaluate the Reliability of Health Information on the Internet
Many people use the Internet to get information and make changes in their lifestyle. Unfortunately, information on the Internet is not always reliable. If you make changes in what you do based on unreliable information, you may waste your time and money because you won’t get the results you are aiming for; you may even damage your health.
Before making any changes, you need to determine that the website you consult is providing reliable information. Ask yourself the following questions:
You should be able to easily identify who is responsible for the site. Usually, this information is located in the “About Us” section, often at the top or bottom of the main page.
The reason you should know this information is because those who run the site will likely determine its content. For example, a site about depression that is run by a pharmaceutical company might present information in such a way as to encourage the use of their medications. It may leave out information about effective approaches for depression, such as therapy or regular physical activity. This can lead the reader to believe that medications are the only treatment for depression.
Be cautious of the information on websites where you cannot identify who is running the site and there is no way to contact them.
There are many different reasons to have a website. If you are looking for reliable health information to guide changes in your behaviours, then use websites whose purpose is to help you identify and manage health problems or to improve your health. This is usually the purpose of:
- not-for-profit organizations (e.g. the Canadian Cancer Society),
- educational institutions (e.g. the Harvard School of Public Health's Nutrition Source),
- government agencies (e.g. Santé Montréal, from the Government of Quebec),
- professional organizations (e.g. The Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada).
If the purpose of the website is to sell a product or a service, be skeptical about the information presented, as it will likely be chosen to encourage you to buy the product or service. Verify the information you receive from these sites with sources you believe are reliable.
Some websites are established by individuals or a group of people as a way to share their opinions or experiences. They may mean well, but the information they present will likely only support their opinions. These websites often rely on anecdotes or testimonials as the main source of information: This is not evidence.
It can be difficult to determine the purpose of a website that provides opinions; they may present content that leads the reader to believe their opinions are actually facts. The “About Us” section might be unclear or misleading. For example, the website thinktwice.com states that it “encourages an uncensored exchange of vaccine information, and supports every family’s right to accept or reject vaccines.” However, as you navigate through the site you will realize that the content strongly supports rejecting vaccines. You will need to consult other sources of vaccine information to get a balanced perspective.
The information on a site may be original (i.e. written by the people who run the site) or it may be collected from other sources. With original content you should be able to determine who wrote it. For content that is from other sources, the sources should be indicated and you should be able to verify the information from the original site.
The people who write original content should be qualified and credible sources, as these are generally more trustworthy. Their credentials should be indicated on the site. For example, TheBody.com, a website that provides information about HIV/AIDS and its treatments, has a biography about every health professional who contributes to the content.
For websites where the content is obtained from other sources, the credentials and qualifications of those who review and present the information should be indicated.
Reliable information is supported by evidence, which comes from good-quality research. To help you assess the quality of the evidence, the site should provide some information as to when and how the research was conducted. The source of the research should be included so that you can find it and review it for yourself.
Even if you are not an expert in research methods there are some questions that can help you determine if the research was well conducted. Consult Chapter 3, “How to Interpret Medical Research”, in Women Wading Through the Web.
What we know about health expands every day. Websites with reliable information must review and update their content regularly. You can often find a statement at the bottom of a page as to when the content of a site was reviewed and updated.
Women Wading Through the Web: A Health Toolkit: This booklet walks you through the steps of finding, analyzing and understanding the information you’re looking for on the Internet. It's not just for women!
The tutorial from the National Library of Medicine teaches you how to evaluate the health information that you find on the Web. It takes about 15 minutes to work through.