Or, for that matter, any other kind of information? There are some general rules of thumb that anyone with even minimal critical thinking skills probably uses:
• Who is doing the writing? What are his/her credentials? (If there is no author name AND link to the author's bio, reject it.)
• Who sponsors or owns the website? That is, who pays the bills to keep it running and updated? (For health information, a commercial enterprise or an individual is a yellow alert. Check further.)
• How is the information sourced? (These could be links to research material or not. At good health sites, often the physician writing the article is the expert.)
• Who, if any, are the advertisers and what is the physical relationship on the pages to the stories? (Nothing wrong with advertising to help keep the doors open but if, for example, an ad for a prescription drug is placed next to an article about the condition or disease it treats, alarm bells should go off.)
• Does it pass the smell test? (If a health information website is selling miracle cures or a one-pill-cures-all nostrum, leave.)
Those are just a few tests and you probably know them.
About a week ago, the National Institute on Aging (NIA), one of the institutes and centers of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), published what they call an Age Page with guidelines on how to tell if health information online is reliable.
It is a useful checklist, as far as it goes. They suggest some of the same items I do (above) along with reminders to check for privacy protections and suggest that health sites of the federal government, medical schools and large professional or non-profits are the most reliable.
I don't agree that those are the only trustworthy health websites and until I find out otherwise, I would question “large professional and non-profits” for an agenda of their own.
Another requirement for a trustworthy site to me and to the NIA is dated articles.
An amazing number of websites don't date their stories which, aside from the headline, is the first thing I look for. Then (if it's not just a silly website for vegging out to cat videos) I check for an author name and if all three are present, I read. If one is missing, I leave.)
Whether it is news or any other kind of information, it cannot be assessed without knowing when it was written. That doesn't mean older dates make information useless (depends on the topic) but you will think differently about a story on, for example, nutrition if it was written before the newest research on salt and sugar intake began circulating.
Dating articles is crucial and I rank it with misspellings and poor grammar as an instant alert to suspect material. For me, every page of a website must have a published date.
As I was beginning to prepare this blog post and although I am reasonably familiar with NIA website, I checked the About Page, probably for the first time. No date. Plus, it states that the 65-plus population of the United States is 39 million. That seemed off to me, and it is.
I checked with the U.S. Census Bureau and the most recent semi-annual estimate, from last July, was 44.7 million; it hasn't been 39 million since before 2010.
You could say a undated About Page is unimportant but it's often the first page newcomers read and out-of-date information is a big red flag calling an entire website into question.
Does that mean I believe the NIA website is dubious? Absolutely not. They produce an large amount of good health information (even if you do need to wade through a lot of professional material not intended for consumers like you and me).
And all the health and medical stories I checked include dates, author names and links to their bios. I've not used this website frequently but I've bookmarked it now although I am partial, as a first but not only stop for general information, to the non-governmental WebMD.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Joyce Benedict: Spring Whispers