More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Surfer Beware: How to Evaluate Health Information Online

Every day, millions of people visit the Internet searching for health-related information. Whether you're looking for information about asthma, diabetes, weight-loss, or hyperhidrosis, the Internet can be a gold mine or a land mine. Some information you'll find online is reliable and up-to-date. Other information is, unfortunately, dangerously unreliable and old. How can you tell the good from the bad from the ugly? We've compiled some guidelines:

  1. Consider the source. Before you take the information provided on a Web site seriously, you must first figure out who the information is coming from and whether that person or organization is a reliable source. Look for an "About Us" page and read it. Who is running the Web site? Good sources may include branches of the government, colleges, universities and other academic entities, not-for-profit organizations, and hospitals. It is a good sign if it is easy for you to figure out who is behind a Web site and how to contact them ? people who are proud of their Web sites and who are concerned about accuracy and reputation usually make sure that it's straightforward for users to provide feedback and ask questions. Look for names, addresses, e-mail addresses, and phone numbers. If you can't figure out who is behind a Web site or how to get in touch with those people, be wary.
  2. Focus on quality. Is the Web site designed well? Is it easy to navigate and read? Is the content well-written with a negligible number of spelling and grammatical errors? A health Web site for consumers should use simple language, not technical jargon. Use caution if the site has a sensational writing style (lots of exclamation points, for example.) Are the links working? Serious and knowledgeable authors of health information will take the time to proofread and edit their content. Doing so is a sign of professionalism. If a site has many spelling errors, broken links, error pages, and other indications of sloppiness, do not put your trust in it. You wouldn't feel comfortable in a dirty, out-dated, disorderly physician's office would you?
  3. Be skeptical. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. There is a lot of misinformation ? particularly in the realm of health ? on the Internet. Does the information on the site seem deliberately obscure, or are the science and statistics to support the arguments mysteriously absent? The International Hyperhidrosis Society is aware of numerous sites claiming to offer "cures" for hyperhidrosis on which the "research and statistics" or "study results" pages are permanently "coming soon" or do not exist and lead only to error pages. Other sites advertising hyperhidrosis "cures" fail to mention potential side effects. These are red flags. Additionally, the U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health, in their "Guide to Healthy Web Surfing" warns against sites that promise quick, dramatic, miraculous results and that claim that one remedy will cure a variety of illnesses, is a "breakthrough," or relies on a "secret ingredient." Use caution even when reading "testimonials": they may easily be fiction. And money-back-guarantees can be no guarantee. Disreputable companies can make it very difficult and costly for you to return unsatisfactory products.
  4. Look for dates. Is the content on the Web site current? Look for dates on articles, at the bottom of Web pages and elsewhere on the site. Health information changes all the time ? new research, new treatments, and new recommendations make healthcare an exciting and dynamic field. Quality Web sites will keep up. A document on coping with the loss of a loved one doesn't need to be current, but a document on the latest treatment for a disease does. 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.
  5. Find the evidence. What are the medical claims on a Web site based on? Look for references to medical studies published in peer-reviewed medical journals or presented at reputable medical association meetings (such as the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology or the American Medical Association). Other good examples are articles written by health professionals such as physicians (M.D.) or registered nurses (R.N.) or provided by trusted non-profit organizations such as the American Heart Association.
  6. Beware of bias. What is the purpose of the Web site? Is it designed to sell a product or service? What does the site want from you? Is funding for the Web site provided by grants, donations, sponsors, or advertisers? Sponsorships and advertisements can be o.k. (even non-profits and charities ? like the International Hyperhidrosis Society ? have to pay bills) but all ads should be clearly labeled so that there is no confusion between what is an ad and what is unbiased content.
  7. Protect your privacy. Health information should be kept confidential and reputable sites will respect your privacy. Health Web sites should have an easily accessible privacy policy. Read the privacy policy to see if your privacy is really being protected. For example, if the site says "We share information with companies that can provide you with useful products," then your information isn't private.
  8. Get a second opinion. Check more than one site regarding a particular topic and, most importantly, talk to your doctor about the things that you have learned online. If you have read something that concerns or surprises you, print it out and show it to your doctor. Always talk to your doctor before following any medical advice you may read online. Ask your doctor for recommendations of good health Web sites that may be particularly helpful given your individual circumstances.
For more tips and information about how to be a savvy reader of online health information use these links:



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A document on coping with the loss of a loved one doesn't need to be current,

I have found that even when dealing with something with loss or other counselling practices. Some techniques I learned in the early 90's and are out dated as newer approaches are much more effective. So I still watch my dates even for issues such as loss.
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