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A Check List To Determine Reliability Of Information On A Web Site


When looking for reliable information, the first step is to determine the reliability of the site on which it is located.

Don't let a site's design influence your opinion of reliability of information.  Site design is not directly related to the accuracy of the information provided.   

The following check list will help you determine the reliability of the sites, that you encounter on the web. For additional information, click on the links : 

Who sponsors/pays for the site?

  • A reputable site with medical information should clearly state who is responsible for the site and its content.  This is important in determining the accuracy of the information and identifying any potential conflicts of interest. 
  • Sites that are administered by government agencies, well-respected health organizations, or prestigious and well -known institutions and organizations are more likely to provide accurate, up-to-date, unbiased information. At the other extreme, suspect sites provide information about a "miracle cure" and then try to sell you the site sponsor's product that will provide the cure.
  • A site's web address can sometimes provide information as to who is responsible for its content.  For example, an address ending in ".gov" is always administered by a government agency.  An address ending in ".org" often indicates affiliation with a not-for-profit organization, such as Cancer Care or American Cancer Society.  Keep in mind that some sites confuse the user as to the site's profit status, by using ".org." in their address.  If there is a doubt, contact the site and inquire about its status.  If the site uses ".org", but is a for profit company, this could be a red flag.

Does the sponsor/owner have a potential conflict of interest?

  • A conflict of interest may affect the accuracy of information. Accuracy is more than just about information - it's also about how information is presented. If information is presented in a skewed manner, the information may be accurate, but the presentation may lead the reader to conclusions that are not factually based.
  • It may be difficult to identify a conflict of interest. For example, the site may be presented by a non-profit organization that seems independent. It may take some digging to find that the non-profit was set up by a manufacturing organization.
  • Simply because a site accepts advertising or is presented by a manufacturer does not necessarily indicate that the information presented is biased. When reviewing the site, ask yourself whether the content seems to have a financial, political, or social agenda that is coloring the accuracy of the information . Also ask, does the content seem to confirm or contradict information provided by your doctor or information you've obtained from other reliable sources?
  • When in doubt about a piece of information, speak with your doctor or another informed member of your healthcare team.

Is there an understandable Mission Statement?

  • Most reputable sites that provide medical information contain a "Mission Statement" -- a statement about the purpose and goals of the site and of the organization or individuals that are responsible for the site. The mission statement is usually found as a link on the site's homepage, and may also be referred to as "About This Site," "About Us," or other similar wording. 
  • The statement on a reliable site should be understandable and include objective information about the purpose of the site.

Is there a reputable Board of Directors and/or Editorial Review Board? Reputable sites that provide medical information have medical advisory boards composed of independent medical professionals who review all medical information on the site.

  • Are the names and credentials of the board members or editorial review board clearly identified?
  • Are the board members affiliated with prestigious or well-known medical facilities, health / educational institutions, or government agencies ? Organizations obtain a high quality reputation by only accepting people who meet the standards of the organization, and who continue to maintain those standards. It's in the self interest of a person with a reputation to maintain to only associate his or her name with accurate information which in turn lends greater credibility to a site.
  • How are the site's board members associated with the particular organization with which they are affiliated? For instance, does the person from a prestigious organization serve in that organization as a board member or department head? Broadly speaking, a department head, for instance, is more indicative of reliability than a first year employee.   
  • The fact that a person simply has credentialed initials after his or her name, for example M.D.. does not guarantee accurate or unbiased information.  Some doctors, researchers, and advisors are paid for use of their name / or endorsement, which can lead to a conflict of interest. Check the doctors' credentials and professional achievements. A good source of such information is the AMA Doctor Finder at offsite link

Is the source of information reliable?

  • A reliable site should identify the organization or author responsible for the content. 
  • If the information is new, or differs from standard information, the site should also include the evidence on which the information is based.  Medical facts, statistics, and descriptions of studies should be included (such as information derived from an article in a peer reviewed medical journal, or information presented to a meeting of experts reviewing research evidence). 

Is the information based on a study, trial data or statistics? When information comes from a study, or is about trial data or statistics, look at:

  • The source. Studies, trial data and statistics provided by government agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, or a well-respected medical institution (such as Johns Hopkins University or Medical Center), or a professional organization such as the American Medical Association, are likely to reflect accurate and unbiased information.  Information provided by a group or organization with which you are unfamiliar, should be given closer scrutiny. 
  • The number of people studied. Of course, the greater the number of people studied, the more likely the information is to be accurate.  
  • The period of time over which the study occurred. The longer the period of time over which the study is conducted, the more likely the information is to be accurate. Beware of information based on limited studies, such as a "study" of 10 people over a few month period.
  • If you can access them, also look at the standards used for the study to determine if they are up to a quality standard. Since this is difficult for a lay person to do, look for information that has been published in peer reviewed journals. The information wouldn't have been published in the journals if the editors didn't at least believe the methodology used in the study was acceptable. If necessary, your doctor can help to evaluate particularly important studies for you.

Does the information appear to be up-to-date?

  • It is important that information is timely as well as accurate -- particularly since we are living in a time when medical information can change very quickly,
  • Medical and health websites should be reviewed and updated on a regular basis. The date of the most recent review or update should be clearly posted on each major page or article. Even if the information has not changed, it's preferable that the site has recently reviewed the information to ensure that it is still accurate. A site with information that never seems to change should probably be avoided.

Does the site charge a user or membership fee?

  • Many medical sites provide their information free of charge, including government and disease specific non-profit organizations. However, as the Internet continues to change and grow, more sites may consider charging for their services. A fee, in and of itself, is not indicative of reliability or unreliability of a site.
  • If a site charges a user fee, it is important to know exactly what you get for your money before signing on. Is the provided information or service something that you can obtain free at another site?

Does the site provide links to other sites with additional information?

  • Reputable medical sites and organizations do not claim to be the sole authority for a particular medical or health topic, and will link to other reputable sites when appropriate.
  • A site that provides medical information but does not provide links to additional information should be reviewed carefully. On the other hand, simply because a site provides a list of impressive links to well respected organizations, does not insure the accuracy of the information of the site providing the links. Web sites can link to any site they desire, without needing the permission of the site to which they link. It is essentially a link -as -you -please world.

Does the site have a seal of approval from a reputable or prestigious medical / health organization?

  • Such a seal may be an indication of quality. Other proudly displayed Internet awards or seals of approval do not necessarily indicate that a site provides accurate and impartial information. Impressive graphics and site design are often responsible for these awards. In addition, some awards can be purchased for a fee.
  • Two reputable organizations that set standards are Health On The Net (HON) offsite link (a Swiss organization), and offsite link.
  • If you have a question about what a seal or award means, click through to the awarding agency to get the facts. If the site doesn't provide the ability to click through, e-mail the site and ask for information that would permit you to contact the awarding agency.

Does the site have an understandable privacy policy and/or confidentiality agreement?

  • When accessing cyberspace, we leave little identifying footprints behind us. Remaining completely anonymous has become all but impossible. 
  • A web site's confidentiality policy does not have a direct bearing on accuracy of information, but it can give you a clue about the reliability of a site.  All reputable medical sites should clearly state in writing what they will and will not do with your personal information. If the site does not clearly state what it will do with your information, this may be a red flag.
  • To determine a site's policy for protecting your privacy, link to the "Privacy Policy or "Confidentiality Agreement" which is usually located on the homepage. 
  • If you are concerned about confidentiality and do not understand the "Privacy Policy," contact the site and ask what measures it takes to protect you.  Do not provide personal medical information when "signing up" or "registering" for anything that you may not fully understand.  
  • Only supply personal information if the site is encrypted (information is unreadable except to people with special knowledge.)

Is there a method of making contact with the sponsor(s)?

  • There should always be a way for you to contact a site with questions, problems or feedback. The site may provide a telephone number, and will at least provide an e-mail address. Someone from the site should respond to your message in a timely manner.

It helps to look for information in more than one source and to compare what you find.

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