Skip to Main Content

Evaluation of Health Information on the Web

How do you evaluate health information you find on the web?

When looking for health information online it’s critical to evaluate both the source, and the content being presented to you. Evaluating health information can be broken down into two large steps: lateral reading and closer reading. This LibGuide will provide strategies for both. 

As a general rule of thumb when looking for health information, stick to reputable sites from educational institutions, government sources, and health related associations and societies.

Lateral Reading

Lateral reading involves contextualizing the source rather than closely examining it. Two strategies for lateral reading are click restraint, and SIFT.

Click Restraint

A quick scan of URLs, titles and page descriptions can give you a sense of your search results breadth and depth. Before clicking through and evaluating results thoroughly, see if you can determine something about the relevance and reliability of sources in your result set (are the titles on topic, are they inflammatory?, is the organization well known?) The purpose of this method is to avoid clicking the first link or two just because they're at the top of the results display. 

Watch Stanford History Education Group's short video below (2:19 minutes) for more on how click restraint can direct you to better sources. 

SIFT (or the Four Moves) 

Mike Caulfield's SIFT directs you to do 4 things when looking at sources. They are:

Stop:  Examine the source: is it credible? Reputable? If you're feeling overwhelmed, consider what the original objective was when you started looking at sources. Is the source/information you're looking at relevant?  

Investigating the source: Look at where the information is coming from. Who published this? What was their purpose? What are the potential biases? Asking these questions before doing any reading helps determine the credibility and trustworthiness of a source.  

Find better coverage: Examine the claim a source is making. Can you find other sources that confirm or refute the claim? Compare and contrast claims across different sources.

Trace claims, quotes, and media back to original context: When bits and pieces of one work is taken and read somewhere else, it loses its context, and may be misunderstood or misinterpreted. To understand a claim better, it's best to find the original source and its original context. 

Closer Reading

Lateral reading is always a crucial first step in the source evaluation process. Once you have narrowed down your source list, it’s important to evaluate content with a closer reading. In 1998, six broad criteria for evaluating health information were published in a Policy Paper: Assessing the quality of health information on the internet. Variations of the criteria have been used ever since.

1. Credibility: consider the source, its currency, relevance and review process

  • Source: The source of health information is one of the most important criteria to determine its quality and credibility.
    • Does the site display the name/logo of the institution or organization responsible for the information?
    • Does the site display the authors name if relevant?
    • Can you find the qualifications/credentials of the author?
    • Are personal or financial connections that present a real or potential source of bias disclosed?
    • Is any sponsorship disclosed? i.e. is the site advertising a product or service?
  • Currency:
    • The date of which the original information is based should be displayed.
    • The date of posting on the web should also be displayed.
  • Relevance:
    • Does the content of the site correspond to the information it claims to offer?
  • Review process:
    • Does the site have a "seal of approval" from an individual or group commonly perceived as credible?
    • Sites should state if the information provided has been subject to review and if so describe the individuals and process involved.

2. Content: should be accurate and complete, with appropriate disclaimers

  • Accuracy:
    • The site should identify the data that underlies the conclusions presented.
    • Clinical or scientific evidence should be clearly stated.
    • The framework of the study should be described so the layperson can understand.
    • Users must be aware that testimonials are not evidence.
  • Completeness:
    • Does the information appear to be complete?
    • Is the presentation of information balanced? Users should be wary of a one-sided view.
    • Negative results and a statement of information not known should be included.
  • Disclaimer:
    • A website should have a disclaimer describing the limitations, purpose, scope, authority and currency of the information.
    • Sources of information should be disclosed.
    • A disclaimer should emphasize that the content is information, not medical advice. Readers should consult a health professional before making any health decisions.

3. Disclosure: the site identifies data collected, and how that data will be used

  • A website should clearly state the purpose of the site.
  • Users should be informed of any collection, use or dissemination of information associated with using the site.
  • Users should be informed who is collecting what and who owns the data collected (i.e. can 3rd party participants collect data? - web servers, advertisers)

4. Links: should lead users to other reliable sources of information

Especially critical to the quality of a site are its external links that will lead readers to other authoritative sources.

  • Links should be included to other appropriate sites so users can read further on a topic.
  • Content of originating site is more credible if it provides links to high-quality sites

5. Design: does not affect the quality of the content however it can have significant effects on the delivery and use of the information.

  • Is the site logically organized for easy navigation?
  • Is the site focused on the purpose and target audience?
  • Does the information reflect the reading level of the user?
  • A search capability is very desirable on a web site.

6. Interactivity: Interactivity does not affect the quality of the content however it is important to provide contact information and feedback options on the site

  • A good website should include a feedback mechanism for users to offer comments, corrections and raise questions.
  • A website should be accountable to the users.