Is it clear who is providing the information? Who funds the website? If it is not clear, beware. The “About Us” page on most sites should provide this sort of information.
Find out whether it’s a government body (such as the ACT Health Directorate), professional organisation (such as the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists), not-for-profit institution (such as the Heart Foundation), university, commercial organisation, individual health professional or enthusiastic member of the public.
Government bodies, medical and allied health professional associations (Australian Medical Association, Dietitian’s Association of Australia), relevant institutions (Heart Foundation, Diabetes Australia), and universities are more reliable because they are more accountable.
Look for clues in the name of the website:
– .gov addresses are government bodies,
– .edu are education institutions (universities, colleges)
– .org are not for-profit organisations, and
– .com and .biz are generally used by companies or businesses, while
– .net and.id can be used by companies, businesses and private individuals.
Check to see if the website, and the organisation linked with it, is Australian. If not, some of the information provided might not be relevant to you. Many website addresses will then have a country identifier after them, such as .au (Australia), .uk (United Kingdom) and .us (United States). Country identifiers are not required, so you might have to dig further to see where the website originates.
Websites exist for a purpose – for example, to provide information, to sell a product or to tell the world about the theories of their contributors. Knowing the purpose of a website helps you judge the information it provides. Sites that provide information, without selling a product, will probably give you more balanced advice.
Some pharmaceutical companies produce websites about conditions related to the medications they sell and that promote their medication. That’s not automatically a bad thing, as long as you know that and they are clear about the purpose of the information and the relationship between the information and the profit. It is important to look for information about the condition, medication, and other treatment options from other sources as well.
Check to see if the site is funded or promoted by government agencies, charities or foundations, a business or commercial advertising. Ads should be clearly labelled as advertisements and should not pretend to be information articles.
The best information is based on evidence, not belief. The best information also acknowledges that all treatments have both positives and negatives, and that the outcome of treatments cannot be guaranteed.
Warning signs to watch out for include:
- promises that the medicine will be effective for everyone
- promises of instant cures
- promises of miracle recoveries
- words like ‘breakthrough’, ‘secret ingredient’, ‘scientific research’ (without saying what that research showed) or ‘side-effect free’
- requests for payment.
Is the information reliable?
Be clear about whether the information is fact or opinion. If it is supposed to be a fact, are sources and references provided? Are these sources reliable ones, such as government statistics, World Health Organisation data or papers published in peer-reviewed medical journals?
Claims such as “ground-breaking research has found…” should be accompanied by a reference to the research so you can check the findings.
If the information appears to be opinion rather than fact, is the writer qualified to give it? Are they presenting their opinion as fact?
Is the information different to the generally accepted facts? If so, what is the basis for their different opinion?
Remember – anecdotes are not evidence!
Look for dates on web pages. This is more important for some information. General information about an illness and its causes may not change much in two or three years, but information about its treatment may well change within that time as new research adds to our knowledge and understanding. It’s important to check if the information is recent and up-to-date.
Look for a date that the text was created, posted or updated. If there’s no date, try some of the links – if they don’t work the page might be out of date and may not be being updated regularly.
Most websites link to other sites. Have a look at some of the websites from those links. If a website you’re interested in links to sites you assess to be good quality, then it reflects well. If its links are to websites that you don’t think are very high quality, then this reflects poorly on the website you are looking at.