It's hard for someone who is not a medical professional to make sure that a site provides reliable health information. First, there is no rule you can apply. Even Web sites defined as "good" may not be useful and interesting for all readers. A good site for the patient can be useless for the physician. To find good (English-language) healthcare information, you can bypass the all-purpose commercial search engines and go straight to healthcare portals like Health on the Net (www.hon.ch) or Healthfinder (http://www.healthfinder.org/). These portals have already eliminated the irrelevant for you. A useful rule of thumb is first check out the governmental, not-for-profit and hospital Web sites, or those carrying an immediately recognisable and trusted name. There is enough good material out there to keep you busy for days, if you want!
The continuing development of the Web will be possible only if readers can go on using this medium with minimal threat to their safety. Of particular concern is the uncertain quality of medical advice provided on growing numbers of Web sites and the lack of scientific evidence behind claims made for commercially-available treatments. We have noticed that many sites are not providing even basic user orientation, such as the source of cited documents, Webmaster contact information, last-update notices on pages or information on their organisational structure and funding. Out of this, in July, 1996, sprang the first version of the HON Code of Conduct for medical and health Web sites (HONcode http://www.hon.ch/Conduct.html).
These omissions are usually not intentional. But user trust and good business practice go hand in hand: such information is essential if Web sites are to attract and successfully retain customers.
The HONcode aims to raise the quality of healthcare information available on the Net. It is a self-regulatory, voluntary certification system based on an "active seal" concept. While primarily intended for healthcare site developers and publishers, the blue-and-red HONcode seal on subscribing sites also helps users identify sources of reliable information. It addresses, among other things, the authority of the information provided, data confidentiality and privacy, proper attribution of sources, transparency of financial sponsorship and the importance of clearly separating advertising from editorial content.
Like a voluntary certification system, Web sites decide to come to us and request HONcode membership, not the other way around. That is, membership is their initiative, not ours. These sites assume the responsibility to respect and comply with all the eight principles of the HONcode. (http://www.hon.ch/Conduct.html ). After the site applies for membership, the HONcode team visits the site and makes sure that all the principles are followed. If some of the elements necessary for full compliance are missing, we at HON work with the Web site developer to ensure the required modification.
Signing up for the HONcode is a formal but relatively straightforward process. Sites requesting accreditation are first invited to complete an interactive, online questionnaire that will automatically tell them what (if anything) they must add or modify to conform to the eight HONcode principles. Then an actual HON team member inspects the site. If it complies, it is issued with a unique ID number and indexed on our server. Subscribing sites are subject to unannounced and sporadic checks by HON to ensure continued compliance. We rely heavily on user vigilance, as we cannot cover the entire Web. Many alerts come to us from sharp-eyed surfers motivated by civic responsibility. We applaud and encourage this as a vital component of self-regulation.
I suppose you refer to the Health On the Net initiative to improve the quality of health information on the Net, our Code of Conduct (HONcode). Evaluation works like this: Web sites decide to come to us and request HONcode membership, not the other way around. That is, membership is their initiative, not ours. These sites assume the responsibility to respect and comply with all the eight principles of the HONcode. (http://www.hon.ch/Conduct.html ). After the site applies for membership, the HONcode team visits the site and makes sure that all the principles are followed. If some of the elements necessary for full compliance are missing, we at HON work with the Web site developer to ensure the required modification.
I hope you understand that there is a difference between our HONcode work and the constant development of our search services, MedHunt and HONselect. As I said, we do not choose sites for the HONcode, they come to us and request certification. On the other hand, we do actively screen and filter the medical Web sites that are stored in HON's MedHunt database. MedHunt is our dedicated, full-text medical search engine. This database comprises Web sites retrieved by MARVIN (our robot). These are either briefly described by us or simply automatically indexed. MedHunt includes currently three types of documents:
The selection guidelines we use for the HONcode subscribers database directly reflect the HONcode principles (http://www.hon.ch/Conduct.html ). The guidelines for the reviewed database are the following:
Content - Commercial sites
The content shows clearly the commercial status of the site and product descriptions are clear.
Content - Non commercial sites
The content is for information purposes only and is of value to the Net community as a whole as well as appropriate to the audience level. It also provides a lists of links to complement the Web site content.
Design and maintenance of the Web page
The Web site is easy to navigate and well-organised. Links from the site are active and maintained
It's hard to say. The sector today believes that there is still a lot of potential in self-regulation, and HON is working with a number of different international groups to further develop ethical guidelines and rules on quality and ways to strengthen compliance. Government regulation of conventional medicine is already extensive. Once medicine starts to be practised on the Net, the same sort of regulation will surely apply, probably with additional strict rules concerning cross-border practice. On-line pharmacies will probably fulfil a useful role once there is sufficient regulation of their activities. But remember, the Internet will be hard to fully control, given its unique design!
You might be interested in http://www.quackwatch.com
There is no easy solution. Through the HONcode initiative, the Foundation aims to educate Internet user to be more aware about what they read, about who provides the information and for what purpose. Reflecting on these questions and becoming familiar with the health Internet will gradually help the user to more easily tell good Web sites from bad ones. We seek to empower Web users to take responsibility themselves for the information they "consume". We always say, never follow any medical advice before talking to your doctor about it, never accept diagnosis or prescriptions on-line from physicians you do not already personally know and trust.