Evaluating Health Information: A Guide for Parents

mom and teen on computerBooks, magazines, and the internet are three major sources of information about health, but just because the information is published online it doesn’t mean that it’s reliable. Sometimes a book or website that looks trustworthy is based on opinions rather than facts, and sometimes the information is just plain wrong.

Question the source of the information to help you decide if the information is biased:

  • Who created the information? Are they trying to promote a product, idea, or agenda?
  • Is there valid contact and “About Us” information on the website?
  • Is there advertising presented along with the information?
  • Is a variety of information presented, or just one point of view?
  • Is the information from a medical or health-related organization? If not, what is the author or organization’s motivation for publishing health information?

Evaluate the reliability of the information by considering the following:

  • Is it easy to find out who created the information? The author and/or organization should be clearly identified, and contact information should be available. Is the site professionally managed and reviewed by experts in the field?
  • Is the information clearly organized? Do the links work?
  • Is the information up-to-date? Look for the date of the most recent publication. Health information and treatments change all the time, so old information may no longer be accurate.
  • Who is the information created for? Content should be age-appropriate. For example, if intended for teens, it should be teen-friendly and written at an appropriate reading level.
  • Does the site have sponsors? All sponsorship, advertising, or commercial interests should be clearly stated.
  • Does the site credit sources? Statements such as “from my own experience” reflect the opinion of an individual rather than scientific facts.
  • What type of language does the website use? Does it explain information in a straightforward way, or does it use sensationalized, exaggerated wording?

Check links and more links. Not only do you want to be sure that the links work, it’s very important to know where the links go. Are there links to the source information that are cited?

Don’t be fooled by website claims: Be alert to websites that credit themselves as the only source of the information or if the site blatantly discredits other sources of information.

Use common sense: If the information appears unprofessional, it probably is. Compare the information you find on a website with information from other reputable sites.

Check out websites: Does the URL include the name of a respected health organization such as planned parenthood.org or a government site such as cdc.og, both of which tend to be more reliable. Or, is the website a company or business or news site (ex. Buzzfeed.com), which tends to be less reliable or accurate.

Check more than one website. Visit multiple websites in order to compare information from different authors and health organizations. If several different reliable websites are saying the same thing, then there is a good chance that the information is accurate.

Wikipedia shouldn’t be your first choice. Wikipedia will most likely appear on the first page of search results, and while it it good for a quick review and to find links to ther sources, do not rely on it as a primary source of health information.

There is more than Google. Instead of turning to Google to search for your health concerns, you should start by searching MedlinePlus, which is a health website offered by the National Library of Medicine (the world’s largest medical library). MedlinePlus is similar to a search engine that only searches through accurate health information. All of the results have been reviewed to make sure that only up-to-date, reliable website are included.

When in doubt, ask. If you are ever unsure as to whether a website is reliable or not, you can ask a librarian at a public library. The librarian will guide you through the website evaluation process.

It’s important to take the time to check out a website before recommending it to your daughter. In the long run, it’s good to know if the advice you are giving your daughter is reliable. Information published by medical societies, health care organizations (.org), the government (.gov), or nonprofit organizations are usually good sources of information.