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How to Find Reliable Medical Information on the Web

Accidentally or intentionally, misleading information provided during the sale or purchase of a house or car can be financially troublesome as well as a major inconvenience.  Acting on erroneous medical advice however, can be catastrophic.  For this reason, extreme caution is crucial with any health information obtained on the Web.  Never act on any medical information from an online source without asking questions and without consulting your own physician.

Who runs the Web Site?
Knowing who runs a Web site can give you a clue as to its purpose.  For example, a major pharmaceutical company may run a very informative health Web site.  They want to appear credible, they need to be trusted, and in addition, they are being watched very closely by regulating authorities at a number of levels.  Most of these companies will make sure to display corporate ownership information, names of editors, etc.

On the other hand, a single individual reselling medical products may not feel the same pressure to accurately inform visitors of how the site is operated.  So the rule for the consumer is to make sure that there is an “About Us” section on the Web site that adequately identifies the ownership of the site.

Who Pays for the Web Site?
While it may seem obvious that the owner pays for the Web site, this is not always the case.  Web sites cost money to maintain.  Web sites can exist for a number of reasons, and each reason can introduce a different source of funding.  Here are some examples:

  • Commercial Web sites – Funds are usually derived from advertising or subscription fees.
  • Public service Web sites – Funding methods may include corporate sponsorships, and grants from both public and private non-profit organizations.
  • Educational Web sites – Financial support may come directly from the school budget or from a variety of corporate and non-profit endowments.
  • Altruistic Web sites – In these cases, individuals or small groups usually pay for their own site.  Although valuable information may be found on each of these types of Web sites, for health research, the source(s) of Web site funding can be a concern, especially in terms of possible bias reflected in the information provided.  The importance of knowing how and by whom a particular Web site is funded cannot be overstated.

Suppose, for example, that a single, well-intentioned allergy fighter, using his or her own money, sets up an altruistic  Web site including a directory of allergy-related health information.  That person may spend several weeks compiling links to interesting articles and other Web resources.  As time passes, however, he or she may lose interest, become involved in other projects, or forget about the site entirely. The result is that the Web site is still out there with old, out-of-date information still available to unsuspecting consumers.

Another strong possibility is that the person who started the Web site did not have the professional training necessary to distinguish between relevant medical information and well- greased marketing materials.  The bottom line is that the altruistic or low-budget Web site often suffers from a lack of resources to ensure continuing high quality, up-to-date content.

Who is the Content Source?
If I told you that a cure for asthma was found last week, your first reaction would probably be, “Where did you hear that?”Simply put, that is the same question you need to ask whenever you read about a new medical procedure or discovery on the Web.  Reputable sites will always post the source of the material, often including a link back to the originator.

How is Information reviewed Before It is Posted on the Web Site?
You may be surprised to learn that many of the news headlines you encounter on the Web are simply small pieces of code that call on databases to collect a predetermined number of headlines that match certain keyword criteria.  In other words, there is not always someone who checks the source of the material for relevancy to the topic at hand. For medical information, human oversight is crucial and essential. Responsible Web sites use editors to select and evaluate relevant data. For medical Web sites, a person or often a group of people are specifically trained to separate marketing message from reliable medical data.  – Gary Paul Bryant