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8 Questions to Help You Evaluate Health News Online

By Gay Falkowski

Thanks to the Internet, the latest news about multiple sclerosis spreads quickly. Because anyone can publish on the web, readers should be cautious. Many online health resources are useful, but others may present information that is inaccurate or misleading, so it’s important to find sources you can trust. When evaluating health news and information online, the National Institutes of Health suggests asking the following questions. And don’t forget, your best source of all may be your doctor. Most doctors stay up to date on the latest significant research in their specialties. If you see something about MS in the news, ask him or her about it.

1) Are you reading real online news or just advertising?

You should suspect that a news site may be fake if it:
  • Endorses a product. Real news organizations generally don’t do this.
  • Only quotes people who say good things about the product.
  • Presents research findings that seem too good to be true. (If something seems too good to be true, it usually is.)
  • Contains links to a sales site.
  • Includes positive reader comments only, and you can’t add a comment of your own.

2) If you’re getting health news from a social media platform, what does the sponsor’s website tell you about their mission?

Health information presented on social networking sites is often very brief, and details about the sponsoring organization may be very limited. Fortunately, organizations with social media accounts usually have websites as well, where they discuss the same health topics at greater length and provide additional details about themselves and their policies. You can usually find a link to the website in the organization’s profile on the social networking site. On Twitter, it’s usually in the header above the tweets; on Facebook, it’s usually in the "About" section.

3) Who runs and pays for the website?

One way to learn about who runs a website is by looking at the letters at the end of its web address. For example, web addresses that end in “.gov” mean it’s a government-sponsored site; “.edu” indicates an educational institution, “.org” a noncommercial organization, and “.com” a commercial organization. You can trust sites with “.gov” addresses. You can also trust sites with “.edu” addresses if the educational institution produces them. Personal pages of individuals at an educational institution may not be trustworthy, even though they have “.edu” addresses.

4) How does the site support itself?

Is it funded by the organization that sponsors it? Does it sell advertising? Does a company that sells dietary supplements, drugs, or other products or services sponsor it? The source of funding can affect what content is presented, how it’s presented, and what the site owners want to accomplish.

5) What is the source of the information?

Many health and medical sites post information collected from other websites or sources. If the person or organization in charge of the site didn’t create the material, the original source should be clearly identified.

6) What is the basis of the information?

In addition to identifying the source of the material you’re reading, the site should describe the evidence (such as articles in medical journals) that the material is based on. Also, opinions or advice should be clearly set apart from information that’s evidence-based (that is, based on research results). For example, if a site discusses health benefits people can expect from a treatment, look for references to scientific research that clearly support what’s said. Keep in mind that testimonials, anecdotes, unsupported claims, and opinions aren’t the same as objective, evidence-based information.

7) Is the information reviewed?

You can be more confident in the quality of medical information on a website if people with credible professional and scientific qualifications review the material before it’s posted. Some websites have an editorial board that reviews content. Others put the names and credentials of the individuals who reviewed a Web page in an acknowledgments section near the end of the page.

8) How current is the information?

Some types of outdated medical information can be misleading or even dangerous. Responsible health websites review and update much of their content on a regular basis, especially informational content such as fact sheets and lists of frequently asked questions. Other types of site content, however, such as news reports or summaries of scientific meetings, may never be updated; their purpose is to describe an event, rather than to provide the most up-to-date information on a topic. To find out whether information on a webpage is old or new, look for a date on the page (it’s often near the bottom).