What should you look for when evaluating the quality of health information on Web sites? Here are some suggestions based on our experience.
Consider the source--Use recognized authorities
Know who is responsible for the content.
Look for an "about us" page. Check to see who runs the site: is it a branch of the Federal Government, a non-profit institution, a professional organization, a health system, a commercial organization or an individual.
There is a big difference between a site that says, "I developed this site after my heart attack" and one that says, "This page on heart attack was developed by health professionals at the American Heart Association."
Web sites should have a way to contact the organization or webmaster. If the site provides no contact information, or if you can't easily find out who runs the site, use caution.
Focus on quality--All Web sites are not created equal
Does the site have an editorial board? Is the information reviewed before it is posted?
This information is often on the "about us" page, or it may be under the organization's mission statement, or part of the annual report.
See if the board members are experts in the subject of the site. For example, a site on osteoporosis whose medical advisory board is composed of attorneys and accountants is not medically authoritative.
Look for a description of the process of selecting or approving information on the site. It is usually in the "about us" section and may be called "editorial policy" or "selection policy" or "review policy."
Sometimes the site will have information "about our writers" or "about our authors" instead of an editorial policy. Review this section to find out who has written the information.
Be a cyberskeptic--Quackery abounds on the Web
Does the site make health claims that seem too good to be true? Does the information use deliberately obscure, "scientific" sounding language? Does it promise quick, dramatic, miraculous results? Is this the only site making these claims?
Beware of claims that one remedy will cure a variety of illnesses, that it is a "breakthrough," or that it relies on a "secret ingredient."
Use caution if the site uses a sensational writing style (lots of exclamation points, for example.)
A health Web site for consumers should use simple language, not technical jargon.
Get a second opinion! Check more than one site.
Look for the evidence--Rely on medical research, not opinion
Does the site identify the author? Does it rely on testimonials?
Look for the author of the information, either an individual or an organization. Good examples are "Written by Jane Smith, R.N.," or "Copyright 2003, American Cancer Society."
If there are case histories or testimonials on the Web site, look for contact information such as an email address or telephone number. If the testimonials are anonymous or hard to track down ("Jane from California"), use caution.
Check for currency--Look for the latest information
Is the information current?
Look for dates on documents. A document on coping with the loss of a loved one doesn't need to be current, but a document on the latest treatment of AIDS needs to be current.
Click on a few links on the site. If there are a lot of broken links, the site may not be kept up-to-date.
Beware of bias--What is the purpose? Who is providing the funding?
Who pays for the site?
Check to see if the site is supported by public funds, donations or by commercial advertising.
Advertisements should be labeled. They should say "Advertisement" or "From our Sponsor."
Look at a page on the site, and see if it is clear when content is coming from a non-commercial source and when an advertiser provides it. For example, if a page about treatment of depression recommends one drug by name, see if you can tell if the company that manufactures the drug provides that information. If it does, you should consult other sources to see what they say about the same drug.
Protect your privacy--Health information should be confidential
Consult with your health professional--Patient/provider partnerships lead to the best medical decisions.
International scam artists use clever schemes to defraud millions of people around the globe each year, threatening financial security and generating substantial profits for criminal organizations and common crooks. Being on guard online can help you maximize the benefits of e-commerce and minimize your chance of being defrauded. Here are ten tips to help you avoid common online scams:
Don’t send money to someone you don’t know. That includes an online merchant you’ve never heard of — or an online love interest who asks for money or favors. It’s best to do business with sites you know and trust. If you buy items through an online auction, consider a payment option that provides protection, like a credit card. Don’t send cash or use a wire transfer service. And don’t pay upfront fees for the promise of a big pay-off — whether it’s a loan, a job, or prize money.
Don’t respond to messages that ask for your personal or financial information, whether the message comes as an email, a phone call, a text message, or an ad. Don’t click on links or call phone numbers included in the message, either. The crooks behind these messages are trying to trick you into sending money and revealing your bank account information. If you get a message and are concerned about your account status, call the number on your credit or debit card — or your statement — and check it out.
Don’t play a foreign lottery. First, it’s easy to be tempted by messages that boast enticing odds in a foreign lottery, or messages that claim you’ve already won. Inevitably, you’ll be asked to pay “taxes,” “fees,” or “customs duties” to collect your prize. If you send money, you won’t get it back, regardless of the promises. Second, it’s illegal to play foreign lotteries.
Keep in mind that wiring money is like sending cash: once it’s gone, you can’t get it back. Con artists often insist that people wire money, especially overseas, because it’s nearly impossible to reverse the transaction or trace the money. Don’t wire money to strangers, to sellers who insist on wire transfers for payment, or to someone who claims to be a relative in an emergency (and wants to keep the request a secret).
Don’t agree to deposit a check from someone you don’t know and then wire money back, no matter how convincing the story. By law, banks must make funds from deposited checks available within days, but uncovering a fake check can take weeks. You are responsible for the checks you deposit: When a check turns out to be a fake, you’ll be responsible for paying back the bank.
Read your bills and monthly statements regularly—on paper and online. Scammers steal account information and then run up charges or commit crimes in your name. Dishonest merchants sometimes bill you for monthly “membership fees” and other goods or services you didn’t authorize. If you see charges you don’t recognize or didn’t okay, contact your bank, card issuer, or other creditor immediately.
In the wake of a natural disaster or another crisis, give to established charities rather than one that seems to have sprung up overnight. Pop-up charities probably don’t have the infrastructure to get help to the affected areas or people, and they could be collecting the money to finance illegal activity. Check out ftc.gov/charityfraud to learn more.
Talk to your doctor before buying health products or signing up for medical treatments. Ask about research that supports a product’s claims — and possible risks or side effects. Buy prescription drugs only from licensed U.S. pharmacies. Otherwise, you could end up with products that are fake, expired or mislabeled — in short, products that could be dangerous. Visit ftc.gov/health for more information.
Remember there’s no such thing as a sure thing. If someone contacts you promoting low-risk, high-return investment opportunities, stay away. When you hear pitches that insist you act now, guarantees of big profits, promises of little or no financial risk, or demands that you send cash immediately, report them at ftc.gov.
Know where an offer comes from and who you’re dealing with. Try to find a seller’s physical address (not just a P.O. Box) and phone number. With VoIP and other web-based technologies, it’s tough to tell where someone is calling from. Do an internet search for the company name and website and look for negative reviews. Check them out with the Better Business Bureau at bbb.org