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Six Steps to Assess Health Information on the Web

Spring 2011

Six Steps to Assess Health Information on the Web

On the Web we have access to more information than we could ever hope to use. When it comes to health-related information, we need to know how to filter out the information we don't need and keep only what is useful to us. So how do we know we have the best health information we need? How do we know we can trust what is out there? It seems like a daunting task, but the good news is that asking yourself a few questions can help you quickly assess the usefulness of a website.

What are we looking for when we are deciding what to trust? In a word: credibility. For something to be credible, we need to feel that the source is both trustworthy and informative. We need to know that the people providing the information have the background or understanding in a certain area to know what they are talking about. We also need to know that the source is trustworthy. Many people may have the knowledge but that does not mean they have the skills or even the intention to share that knowledge with others.

Trusting health information can be especially scary on the Web, but there is a great deal of credible information out there. We just have to be savvy evaluators. Below is a list of six key questions you should ask yourself when you're visiting a website for the first time.


Evaluation Checklist: Six Key Questions

  1. Are the authors or creators of the site clear about their purpose or goal for creating the site?
    This question looks at the intentions or motives of those who are presenting the information. Websites are created for all kinds of reasons. Some are meant to inform, others aim to entertain and some are stating an opinion. The purpose of many websites is to sell products or in a more indirect manner promote commercial products. It is important that a site let you know exactly what it is trying to do and why.
  2. Is the site what it claims to be? Does it do what it claims to do?
    This question looks at coverage. If the site says it has everything you need to know about a topic, you should ask yourself if it looks like there is enough information on the site to support the claim. For example, if a site claims to provide comprehensive information about HIV treatment but does not mention the latest antiretroviral medications, it can hardly be living up to its claim.
  3. Is it easy to find out who is responsible for the site and how to get in touch with them?
    This question gets at the authority of the site. Ask yourself questions like: Do the people responsible for the site have the background or credentials to be presenting this information? If an organization is behind the website, can you find information about the organization, such as its history, staff, board and location? If you can't find any way to get in touch with those who have created a website, this is a red flag.
  4. Are the dates of the most recent postings or the dates the information was written provided?
    This question gets at the currency of the site. The content should be up-to-date, as should the links to other resources and websites. This is especially critical when it comes to medical information. Knowing how current the information is will help you compare it to other information you find. Also, a site that hasn't changed its information on a topic in a long time may not be the best source of information out there (although there may be exceptions).
  5. Is the information presented in a way that informs you or does it feel more like it is trying to persuade you?
    This question looks at the objectivity of the site. The site should try to present information in a balanced way. If the content is presented in a way that feels more like it is trying to convince you of something, you should think twice before taking it as fact. Are you being told what to do or what the information means or are you being given the facts to make your own decisions?
  6. Are sources given when facts are presented?
    This question will help you assess the accuracy of the site. Facts should be separated from opinion and the sources of facts should be provided. Content on the Web may not be held to the same rules as content included in newspapers or academic journals, but that doesn't mean that some people and organizations aren't holding themselves to similar guidelines when publishing Web content.


Don't Judge a Site by Its Design

Our eyes can play tricks on us, especially when we are on the Web. A great deal of research has been done to understand how we determine if something we find on the Web is credible. Certain groups may use this information to better highlight their good information but others can use this information to trick us into trusting their not-so-good information.

Research found on a website that looks more professional or well-designed will be seen as more credible. The risk in this is that the actual content or information is not being evaluated. While a professional-looking site can be an indicator of quality information, it is important to take the time to look deeper at the quality of the content on that site.

Now you have the tools to approach the Web more confidently and not only find the information you need but find the best, most credible information you need. Ask yourself the six key questions. If a site doesn't meet your standards, move along. And if you find something really great, hold on to it.


Other Checklists and Tools

Dalhousie University Library Website checklist

Dalhousie University Library 6 criteria for Websites

Stanford guidelines for Web credibility

Lauren Plews is currently the information specialist at CATIE. A certified bookworm, Lauren earned her Masters of Science in Information with a specialization in library sciences from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Before coming to CATIE, she worked in a public library and also assisted faculty and researchers at the School of Rehabilitation Science at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario.


References

Fogg BJ, Marshall J, Laraki O, Osipovich A, Varma C, Fang N, et al. What makes Web sites credible? A report on a large quantitative study. In: Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on human factors in computing systems. 2001. p. 61-68.

Hilligoss B, Rieh SY. Developing a unifying framework of credibility assessment: Construct, heuristics, and interaction in context. Information Processing & Management. 2008;44(4):1467-1484.

Rieh SY. Judgment of information quality and cognitive authority in the Web. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology. 2002;53(2):145-161.



  
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This article was provided by Canadian AIDS Treatment Information Exchange. It is a part of the publication Prevention in Focus: Spotlight on Programming and Research. Visit CATIE's Web site to find out more about their activities, publications and services.
 
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