Evaluate Health Information on the Internet
“When I hear someone say they went home and Googled ‘breast cancer’ after their diagnosis, I cringe. They will quickly be overwhelmed and fearful if they do not manage the research of their disease correctly.” Elisabeth Russell, President, Patient Navigator
Finding information about cancer or other health conditions on the Internet is easy. You can get millions of hits by typing in a term such as “breast cancer.”
However, avoiding information overload and finding credible, reliable information is more difficult. Internet content is not regulated, so you need to be a knowledgeable consumer when you are searching for information about cancer or other diseases. Consider the following questions when viewing health information websites:
Who operates the website?
The person or organization that operates the website should be identified throughout the website. This way, users know the source and purpose of the information, for example, whether it is educating people about a disease or selling a product. Find the “About Us” section to learn more about who operates the site, and use this information to help you judge the material. You may also use the site address as a general guide:
- A commercial source is .com
- An educational institution is .edu
- The United States government is .gov
- Any organization, industry-sponsored or nonprofit, is .org
Who is responsible for the website’s content?
Reliable websites tell you who edits and approves the content (such as an editorial board) and how to contact the organization that operates the website. For example, “About Us” on Cancer.Net includes a list of Cancer.Net Editorial Board members. The “Contact Us” link provides users with an address, phone number, and e-mail address to reach the Cancer.Net editorial staff.
Who funds the website?
A website’s financial backing may affect how information is presented. This is called bias. High-quality websites make it easy to tell the difference between advertisements and medical information. Avoid websites that try to promote a specific medication or treatment over another.
How does the website maintain your privacy?
Where do they get their information?
Reliable information is based on scientific evidence and not personal feelings or experiences. When learning about treatment options, look for links or references to research studies. If some material is based on an opinion, it should be clearly labeled. Be cautious about scientific-sounding material that has no data to support the information.
How current is the information on the website?
Cancer and health information change quickly. Information that is several years old may no longer be accurate. Look for a date at the beginning or end of an article, so you know when the article was last posted or reviewed. Be cautious when reading information posted on discussion groups or bulletin boards because this part of the website may not be regularly reviewed or updated.
Does the website have a linking policy?
Links take you to other websites on the Internet. Be aware that the new website may not have the same standards as the one you left. Some sites have a policy of only linking to websites that meet specific criteria, while other sites may include links to any website.
What does your doctor say?
Discuss information you find on the Internet with your doctor or health-care provider. Your doctor can help you evaluate the information and put it into the context of your health.
- Ask your doctor to suggest reliable websites.
- Bookmark the websites you like and check back often for new information or sign up for newsletters.
- Trust your judgment if something you read does not seem right or seems too good to be true.
Additional Websites We Like
The National Cancer Institute’s “Evaluating Online Sources of Health Information” website offers advice on how to determine whether information found online is credible and true.
Health On the Net (HON) Foundation is an organization that established a code of conduct for health and medical websites.
Harvard School of Public Health publishes an online consumer’s guide to health information.
The Lance Armstrong Foundation’s website offers a section on Finding and Evaluating Resources for cancer survivors.
Source for this roadmap: American Society of Clinical Oncology.