Evaluating Health Information on the Internet

The growing popularity of the Internet has made finding health information easier and faster. Much of the information on the Internet is valuable; however, the Internet also allows rapid and widespread distribution of false and misleading information. You should carefully consider the source of information you find on the Internet and discuss that information with your health care provider. This fact sheet can help you decide whether the health information you find on the Internet or receive by e-mail is likely to be reliable.

Any Web site should make it easy for you to learn who is responsible for the site and its information.  If the person or organization in charge of the Web site did not write the material, the Web site should clearly identify the original source of the information.

Who runs the Web site?

Any Web site should make it easy for you to learn who is responsible for the site and its information. Websites that do not provide this information cannot be relied upon.  There is no way to know if they are associated with a business, if they have a political agenda or if they even know what they are talking about.

Who pays for the Web site?

It costs money to run a website. The source of a website's funding should be clearly stated or readily apparent. For example, the U.S. government funds websites with addresses ending in ".gov," educational institutes maintain ".edu" sites, noncommercial organizations' addresses often use ".org," while ".com" denotes a commercial organization (businesses). A Web site's source of funding can affect the content it presents, how it presents that content, and what the owner wants to accomplish on the site.

What is the Web site's purpose?

The person or organization that runs a website and the site's funding sources determine the site's purpose. Many Web sites have a link to information about the site, often called "About This Site." This page should clearly state the purpose of the site and help you evaluate the trustworthiness of the site's information. Although many legitimate websites sell health and medical products, keep in mind that the site owner's desire to promote a product or service can influence the accuracy of the health information they present. Looking for another source of health information that is independent and unbiased can help you validate the accuracy of the material presented on a Web site.  In other words, while we at VitaMist post health tips to aid you, please do not hesitate to double check our information with unbiased sources!  Think of it as getting a second opinion.

What is the original source of the website's information?

Many health and medical Web sites post information that the owner has collected from other Web sites or sources. If the person or organization in charge of the site did not write the material, they should clearly identify the original source.

How does the Web site document the evidence supporting its information?

Websites should identify the medical and scientific evidence that supports the material presented on the site. Medical facts and figures should have references (such as citations of articles published in medical journals). Also, opinions or advice should be clearly set apart from information that is "evidence based" (that is, based on research results). Testimonials from people who said they have tried a particular product or service are not evidence based and usually cannot be corroborated.

Who reviewed the information before the owner posted it on the Web site?

Health-related websites should give information about the medical credentials of the people who prepared or reviewed the material on the Web site. For example, the Office of Dietary Supplements Web site, where VitaMist gets much of its information,  contains fact sheets about vitamins minerals and other dietary supplements. These documents undergo extensive scientific review by recognized experts from the academic and research communities.

How current is the information on the Web site?

Experts should review and update the material on Web sites on a regular basis. Medical information needs to be current because medical research is constantly coming up with new information about medical conditions and how best to treat or prevent them. Web sites should clearly post the most recent update or review date. Even if the information has not changed in a long time, the site owner should indicate that someone has reviewed it recently to ensure that the information is still valid.

What information about users does the Web site collect, and why?

Web sites routinely track the path users take through their sites to determine what pages people are viewing. However, many health-related Web sites also ask users to "subscribe" to or "become a member" of the site. Sites sometimes do this to collect a user fee or select relevant information for the user. The subscription or membership might allow the Web site owner to collect personal information about the user.

Any Web site asking you for personal information should explain exactly what the site will and will not do with the information. Many commercial sites sell "aggregate" data—such as what percent of their users take dietary supplements—about their users to other companies. In some cases, sites collect and reuse information that is "personally identifiable," such as your ZIP code, gender, and birth date. Be certain to read and understand any privacy policy or similar language on the site and do not sign up for anything that you do not fully understand.

How does the Web site manage interactions with users?

Web sites should always offer a way for users to contact the Web site owner with problems, feedback, and questions. If the site hosts a chat room or some other form of online discussion, it should explain the terms of using the service. For example, the site should explain whether anyone moderates the discussions and, if so, who provides the moderation and what criteria the moderator uses to determine which comments to accept and which to reject. Always read online discussions before participating to make sure that you are comfortable with the discussion and with what participants say to one another.

How can you verify the accuracy of information you receive via e-mail?

Carefully evaluate any e-mail messages you receive that provide health-related information. Consider the message's origin and purpose. Some companies or organizations use e-mail to advertise products or attract people to their Web sites. A critical eye is warranted if an individual or company is promoting a particular medical product or service in an e-mail without providing supporting medical evidence.

With all of the misinformation ou there, it can be easy to get caught up in health trends and marketing ploys that serve no purpose beyond emptying your wallet, or a raising panic over “issues” that are not worth fretting over at all.  So verify that health blog’s sources, check where your friend got the information they posted on Facebook, and by all means, double check VitaMist’s health tips before you take action, and certainly before you repost the disinformation yourself.