Tips for Vetting Online Cancer Information

CURESpring 2012
Volume 11
Issue 1

When evaluating cancer-related information online, consider the:

SOURCE: Reputable websites tell visitors, often on an “About Us” page, who’s running the show. Are they health professionals? What are their credentials? Red flags: No contact information, no physical address

FUNDING: The funding source should be clearly stated or apparent. The endings on Web addresses—.com (commercial), .org (noncommercial organization), .edu (education), .gov (government)—are clues to the website’s funding source, target audience and motives. Red flag: Funding source is obscure or unverifiable

Origin of content: Is content based on research findings published in reputable medical journals? Are there citations in the text that enable visitors to verify those findings? Nonprofessional opinion and advice, individual case histories and testimonials (some of which may not be genuine) are poor substitutes for rigorous science. Red flag: Information collected from unidentified sources

Objectivity: Information should be unbiased, unless otherwise labeled, and complete. Reliable resources acknowledge that experts sometimes disagree about cancer causes and treatments. Red flags: Capital letters, exclamation points, descriptions such as “miracle cure,” “breakthrough,” “secret ingredient” and “natural” (which doesn’t necessarily mean safe or effective)

Currency of information: Content must be routinely updated, because cancer research moves quickly. What was considered sound medical knowledge just a few years ago may not be valid today. Red flags: Undated content, broken links

Quality safeguards: At the best websites, an editorial board of top professionals with relevant expertise reviews the content.

Privacy protections: A visitor’s health information should remain confidential. Credible websites explain what they will and will not do with such information, if they ask for it. Many commercial sites sell it to other companies.