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A Decade Devoted to Improving Online Health Information Quality

HON Foundation is a non-governmental organisation offering to Internet users reliable and trustworthy information through more than 8,000 accredited medical and health web sites according to the HON Code of Conduct (HONcode).

Shark cartilage to cure cancer! With four billion pages devoted to health information on the Internet, no wonder to find this kind of news. But there is a reliable mean to verify health and medical information: The Health On the Net Foundation (HON). HON officially went live in May 1996 under the impetus of Mr Guy-Olivier Segond, former Geneva State Councilor, and expert like Professor Jean-Raoul Scherrer, Dr Donald B. Lindberg, Mr Michel Carpentier, Professor Denis Hochstrasser, Professor Ron D. Appel and Mr Jean-Claude Peterschmitt. HON is a non-for-profit and private Swiss foundation, supported by the Geneva Economic and Health Department, the European Union and collaborating closely with the Geneva University Hospitals (Prof. Antoine Geissbühler, Head of the Medical Informatics Division, is HON’s President).

In 2002, HON was also granted the NGO consultative status by the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations, qualified for any questions related to the medical Internet and recognized as a public service "It is a structure which allows to guide citizens or medical professionals to reliable, relevant and up-to-date online health and medical information", explains Celia Boyer, Executive Director of the Health On the Net Foundation.

With this intention, HON accredits web sites according to eight ethical principles, the HONcode, which requires from the publishers the following information: from which authority the information is coming from; what is the purpose of the site; the confidentiality policy; the origin of the sources used; the justification about benefits and performance of a specific treatment; the transparency of the authorship; the actualization of health data; the transparency of sponsorship as well as honesty in advertising and editorial policies. "The HONcode is de facto a standard of the reliability of online information. Its purpose is to protect all citizens from incorrect, indeed misleading medical and health information", specifies Celia Boyer. When surfing on HON’s site (, each user can download a free "plug in" service integrated in the navigator, which automatically indicates if the visited page is part of an accredited site by HON.

More than 8,000 accredited web sites

Today, the HONcode has already been adopted by nearly 8,000 sites, representing 72 countries, among many others MedlinePlus, Pubmed, Orphanet, etc. "We have been constantly progressing for ten years. Million of pages have already been accredited by HON covering all kind of diseases", says HON’s Executive Director, who is surrounded by a team of ten people, including three data processing specialists, two MDs, a surgeon, a pharmacist and a doctor in biology.

Health On the Net Foundation developed telematics applications for patients and health professionals including search tools like HONselect, an encyclopaedia of 33,000 medical topics translated in five languages. HONselect also offers access to medical selected resources such as 12 million of scientific papers, 11,000 clinical trials in progress and more than 3,000 articles of recent news.

Collaboration with the European Union and others

HON is also very active in presenting its researches at an international academic level and collaborates in several projects of the European Union (WRAPIN project of automatic identification of the reliability of medical and health documents). HON works with Google to help annotate websites for health-related searches. These labels appear at the top of Google search results for relevant search queries. “Our strong expertise in this area gave us the opportunity to help make health information easier for people to find.” adds Celia Boyer. On a more regional level, the foundation created for citizens living in the French speaking part of Switzerland a catalogue of selected trustworthy health resources ( offering reliable and quality information on a disease, on where to find an association, a health professional or a hospital, on current medical news, etc.

And in the future? "To disseminate and make information of quality easily accessible remains our priority (according to an American study led in July 2005, 74% of the Net surfers seek medical and health information). Thanks to our data-processing competences, we will continue to develop research tools easily accessible to citizens (assistance to how to ask questions, integrated spelling checker, multilingual platforms). We are also developing local centers of competences in Africa for quality and reliable content creation", answers Celia Boyer.

Translated by HON from “Health on the Net se porte bien” by Giuseppe Costa, published in Pulsations by the Geneva University Hospital, freely distributed, edition of 30’000 copies.


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