Monday, August 5, 2013

Evaluating Health Resources on the Internet

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicien at NIH has provided a brief overview of how to evaluate web-based  information related to the CAM field. This is located at The entry notes that there are a growing number of health-related websites, and these offer information that ranges from incredibly trustworthy to completely useless or even dangerous. With our students using the web on a more frequent  basis, it might be a good time to remind them how to evaluate such sites.

First, the article suggests that the reader look to see who runs the website. It should be easy for you to identify this, and the ownership should appear on each web page. Corollary to this is to identify who pays for the website, as this may not always be the same as who owns it. An initial way to do so is to look at the ending of the url, i.e. gov (a governmental site), .edu (an educational site), .org (an noncommercial organizational site), etc. Look to see how the site pays to exist; is it via advertising or some other fashion. Is it sponsored by a drug company or a technique vendor? This can be a key to assessing the information on that site. It is not likely, for example, that a site sponsored by a drug company will present information counter to drug company advertising.
Then, look at the purpose of the site. This can often be found in the link to “about this site” that is usually placed on the home page.  Look at the various information links and sources; these may often be from other sites, and if so, that should be clearly labeled. The site should also give you information on where they are obtaining evidence. Is it from journal articles, and is it evidence-based? Or are there only testimonials?

How is the information the site presents selected? Are you given information about this. Are there links to other sites, and can you trust them? Are you asked to “subscribe” to the site (which then allows the site to track you and target you with messages in the future).  If they do, they should tell you what they do with the information they collect. Note their privacy policy so you know how they might share that information.
In the end, the goal of assessing the site is to gain useful information, often to be used in managing a patient. Teaching our students to be able to look not only the information but the provenance of the site is an important means of ensuring that best management options are then used. The web may now be our collective memory but some of what we remember is not always good.

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