Chronic Pain Information on Online Websites: 10 Ways to Find the Best Ones
A 2009 survey done by survey by the National Center for Health Statistics found that more than half (51%) of all Americans between the ages of 18 and 64 had looked up health information on the Internet in the preceeding year. Not surprisingly, people with chronic illnesses and disabilities are among the most avid users of Internet health sites.
As the one-on-one time doctors are able to spend with us decreases, we patients are turning more and more to the Internet for in-depth information about our health conditions. There is both a positive and a negative aspect to getting so much of our health information from the Internet. On the positive side, the ever-increasing amount of medical information available online has empowered us to take more responsibility for our health care and made us active participants in decisions related to our health care. On the negative side, there's a lot of misinformation and just plain bad advice on the Web.
Remember that anyone can start a Web site and say pretty much anything they want. So how do you tell which health sites can be trusted to have accurate information? Here are 10 key questions you should ask about any health-related Web site:
1. Who runs the site?
Most reputable sites will display the name of the company, organization or individual who runs the site on every page – not just on the homepage. There should also be an “About Us” link (usually at the bottom of the page), where you can find information about staff, board members, medical experts, etc.
2. What is the site's purpose?
You should find a mission statement or statement of purpose in the “About Us” link, but often that turns out to be a fairly general statement and may not tell you all you need to know. A brief scan of the site should give you a feel for its purpose. Are they trying to sell you a product or service? Obviously a chiropractic site is going to promote the benefits of chiropractic care. And a company that sells supplements is going to have articles about the benefits of various supplelments. That doesn't necessarily mean the information is incorrect. You just need to be aware that there is a certain degree of bias in the material you find on that site.
3. How is the site funded?
Web sites can be expensive to set up and maintain – especially those that provide a wide range of information and are reviewed by medical experts. Except for some individuals who set up a Web site as a hobby or write a personal blog to express their opinions, all Web sites have to be funded somehow. Some, like nonprofits, may ask for donations; others sell a product or service; most sell advertising space on their site. Any advertising should be easily identified, clearly labeled as such, and separated in some way from editorial content.
4. Who is responsible for content on the site?
All articles on a health-related site should clearly identify and give the credentials of the writer and/or editor. Also check to see if content on the site is reviewed by medical experts.
5. How is the medical content documented?
Sources should be cited for any medical information given. For example, if the article mentions the results of a research study, there should be a citation from a peer-reviewed medical journal. Be careful of sites that say, “Research shows...” without giving any references that support the statement.
6. How current is the information on the site?
Articles on a health-related site should indicate the date they were written or last updated. Medical research is constantly revealing new information and better treatments so it is important for all medical information on a Web site to be reviewed and updated regularly. Once information is put out on the Internet, it has a tendency to stay there indefinitely – sometimes long after the writer has forgotten about it. If an article has no date, you have no way of knowing whether it was written last week or 10 years ago. That may not make much of a difference for a history article, but it can make a huge difference when it comes to finding accurate medical information.
7. Is there adequate contact information?
Every Web site should provide a way for you to contact the site owner. Most sites have a “Contact Us” link, often at the bottom of the page. Some sites only offer a form you can fill out to contact them. But most reputible sites will at least give a physical address, phone number and e-mail address.
9. If the site has interactive features, how are they handled?
Many health sites offer users the ability to comment on material, ask questions, or participate in forums or chat rooms. These interactive areas should be monitored to protect you from rude, vulgar and inflammatory posters as well as spam (people trying to sell you their product or services). There should also be a feature that allows you to report an offensive or abusive post.
10. Is the site certified by HONcode?
HONcode is a certification service run by the Health On the Net Foundation. It is dedicated to “improving the quality of online health information.” If a health-related Web site has an HONcode certification, it means they have met a strict code of ethical standards, very similar to those listed in this article. (You can see an HONcode certification seal at the bottom right corner of this page.) While a site without an HONcode certification may still have some good information, the HONcode seal gives you an extra measure of confidence that the site meets a certain standard of quality.