Quality vs. Quackery: Identifying Reliable Health Information

The internet provides an incredible amount of information for people interested in Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADD/ADHD).  You can find the latest medical research, behavior management techniques, info on seminars, classes and professionals, and so on.  Why, you can even find our website (addrc.org).

This is wonderful, but also frightening.  Anyone can say anything with authority.  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

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 attacks was developed by health professionals at the American Heart Association.” There is room for both on the web but the former must be evaluated differently than a site (hopefully) developed with verifiable information.

  • Who is running 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?
  • Does the website have contact information? Websites 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.
  • 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.
  • Do testimonials or case histories have contact information? If the testimonials are anonymous or hard to track down (“Jane from California”), use caution.

Who writes the information?

Information should be qualified either by the author or organization’s credentials, or proper attribution of original information. For example, “written by Jane Smith, R.N.,” or “Copyright 2003, American Cancer Society.”

  • Look for the evidence. Rely on medical research, not opinion.
  • Look for attribution to source material. Ideally if an article references research, an interview or other original material, it will link back to that source material.
  • 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.

Does the site seems sales-y or make health claims that seem too good to be true?

  • Beware of a sensational writing style. Does the information use deliberately obscure, “scientific” sounding language? A consumer health site should use simple language, not technical jargon.
  • 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.”

Is the information current?

When it comes to medical information, the most valuable information is the most current. 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 does.

  • Look for current dates: look for post dates, or a copyright date in the footer of the site.
  • Is the site full of broken links? 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.

Is the information biased?

Ideally information should come from a non-commercial source. But it’s getting hard to tell which sites are non-biased and which are sales pages disguised as “articles.” How can you tell? For example, if a page about treatment of depression recommends only one drug by name, that information may be suspect. Poke around the site to see if you can tell if the company that manufactures the drug has provided that information. If it does, you should consult other sources to see what they say about the same drug.

  • Who is paying 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.”

Does the site have a privacy policy and tell you what information they collect?

You might encounter a site that prompts for your personal data before you can read content. Do not provide it unless you see evidence that a privacy policy that sounds legitimate and will protect your information.

  • There should be a link saying “Privacy” or “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.
  • If there is a registration form, notice what types of questions you must answer before you can view content. If you must provide personal information (such as name, address, date of birth, gender, mother’s maiden name, credit card number) you should refer to their privacy policy to see what they can do with your information.

Above all, get a second, third or fourth opinion! Check more than one site.

Any information or suggestions in this article are solely the opinion of the author(s) and should not replace the advice of appropriate medical, legal, therapeutic, financial or other professionals. We do not test or endorse any product, link, author, individual or service listed within.

Written by, charlene@theredheadsaid.com

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