Evaluating Health Information
on the World Wide Web

A Hands-On Guide for Older Adults and Caregivers

Developed By:

The SPRY (Setting Priorities for Retirement Years) Foundation
10 G Street, NE, Suite 600
Washington, DC 20002

The SPRY Foundation is the nonprofit research and education arm of the
National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare

Table of Contents

Guide Organization
Part I: How Do You Find Reliable Health Web Sites?
Part II: Evaluating the Content on Health Web Sites
Part III: An Evaluation Checklist
Part IV: Health Web Site Issues of Privacy and Fraud
Part V: References and Contact Information
SPRY Contact Information and Acknowledgements

[ top ]

Evaluating Health Information
on the World Wide Web

A Hands-On Guide for Older Adults and Caregivers

About This Guide

This guide is to help you evaluate the health information you find on the World Wide Web. It is not designed to direct you to one site over another (although there are suggestions for reliable web sites later in the guide), but rather to give you the tools to assess the reliability of any health web site on your own.

There are a number of agencies and organizations that keep an eye on health web sites and their content. Most of these groups have published criteria for evaluating this content.

The SPRY Foundation has analyzed a number of these criteria, and has identified the items on which all the sources agree. (A list of the source organizations, as well as their contact information, is at the back of this guide.) This guide also contains a checklist that you can use when you find a web site that you'd like to assess, as well as examples of acceptable and unacceptable practice.

Why This Guide is Necessary

The World Wide Web is becoming the source of health information for a growing number of older adults and their caregivers. With thousands of health-only web sites available, as well as thousands more sites with subsections on health topics, the choices are staggering. SPRY did a web search recently by keying the term "health information" into three of the most widely used search engines. Here are our results:

Site # of citations
Excite (www.excite.com): 19,009,748
Alta Vista (www.altavista.com): 32,412,624
Google (www.google.com): 1,346,966,000

Any web user can become frustrated and confused when searching for specific health information, but these feelings can be even worse for people who may not have much web searching experience. You can see from our search results on "health information" above that there is huge variation in what you might find when you search.

Without experience, it can be difficult to structure a search to find exactly the information you want. And, even when you do an effective search, you may be confused about the nature of different health web sites. For example, there are health web sites created by government agencies (.gov suffix), commercial entities (.com suffix), educational institutions (.edu suffix), and non-profit organizations (.org suffix).

With all this variety, how can you find accurate, timely, understandable information on a specific topic without spending hours online? Also, how can you feel confident about the quality of the information once you arrive at a promising site?

We hope that this guide will help you to overcome these problems as you search for health information on the web.

[ top ]

How the Guide is Organized

Part I: How Do You Find Reliable Health Web Sites?

The first part of the guide offers advice on how to find reliable web sites. The section also lists examples of web sites of various types that have a high probability of containing reliable health information.

Part II: Finding a Reliable Health Web Site

The second part of the guide is organized into sections explaining each of the evaluation criteria. The section for each criterion is subdivided into:

Part III: An Evaluation Checklist

The third part of the guide consists of a checklist to use when visiting a web site. You might find it useful to go back and forth between the checklist and Part II of the guide until you feel comfortable with using all the criteria.

Part IV: Health Web Site Issues of Privacy and Fraud

his section of the guide addresses some of the issues that consumers face when sharing personal information on health web sites.

Part V: References and Contact Information

This last section contains references and contact information for the groups generating the original list of web evaluation criteria we drew upon for this guide.

[ top ]

Part One
How Do You Find Reliable Health Web Sites?

Step 1: Start with government web sites

You can link to all of the government web sites through the portal site: www.firstgov.gov. Some of the sites with health information from the government include (note that these all have a ".gov" suffix):

tep 2: Look up organizations with a history of reliability in health information.

These will most likely have a ".org" suffix, indicating that they are nonprofit organizations. Some of these include:

It is important that you don't accept a ".org" suffix as an indicator of reliability. There are some ".org" web sites that are sponsored by commercial entities. When visiting a ".org" site, be sure to find out what organization supports the site.

tep 3: Try searching for links to reputable medical schools

These will probably have a ".edu" suffix, indicating that they are educational institutions. Examples of these are:

[ top ]

Part Two
What to Look For in Evaluating the Content on a Health Web Site


Definition: The information on the health web site is accurate if it is in agreement with currently accepted science and technology.

What to look for on the web site


Definition: Authorship refers to the individual or team who wrote the content on the web site.

What to look for on the web site


Definition: Copyright refers to the legal ownership of the content by the web site sponsors.

What to look for on the web site


Definition: The contact information should include the following:

What to look for on the web site


Definition: Site Support refers to the agencies or individuals who are funding the site's development and maintenance.

What to look for on the web site


Definition: Disclaimers and cautions are statements that let the web site visitor know what responsibility the web site sponsors will take for the content on their site.

What to look for on the web site


Definition: Currency refers to how up-to-date the information is on the web site.

What to look for on the web site


Definition: The intended audience (or audiences) is the specific group of people for whom the site was designed.

What to look for on the web site


Definition: The content includes enough information so that the site visitor can make informed decisions.

What to look for on the web site


Definition: The clarity of the content refers to the ease with which the web site visitor can understand the information.

What to look for on the web site

[ top ]

Part Three
An Evaluation Checklist

Can you tell who created the content?
Are you given enough information to judge if the author is reliable?
Can you tell if the content is current?
Can you tell if the content is accurate?
Do you have confidence that your privacy is protected?
Is the content copyrighted?
Does the site provide complete contact information?
Is it clear who is funding the site?
Is there a clear disclaimer posted?
Does the site provide references for its content?
Is it clear who is the intended audience?

You may want to tape this checklist on your computer for reference.

[ top ]

Part Four
Health Web Site Issues of Privacy and Fraud

While the intention of this guide is not to address issues of privacy and fraud on health web sites, these are both extremely important areas. Look on the Home page of health web sites for a link to their privacy statement. If the site is collecting personal information from you, you need to know how that information will be used.

The incidence of fraud on commercial web sites (not just health web sites) is widespread. As a general rule, do not give out your social security number to any web site. If you are buying a product on-line, you must have assurances that the web site is using a secure server before you give out credit card information. Even then, you may be at risk.

If in doubt, call the site's sponsors using the Contact Us information. Check to see if the web site is a member of the TRUSTe group that monitors web site privacy statements. If so, the TRUSTe icon should be somewhere on the Home page. You may also want to check to see if the site is listed with BBBOnline, the Internet version of the Better Business Bureau. We have included the contact information for both TRUSTe and BBBOnline in the Reference section of this guide.

[ top ]

Part Five
References and Contact Information

[ top ]

Glossary of Terms

An address is the location of a computer or computer resource on the Internet. You can find the address in the Address Box (Explorer) or the Location Box (Netscape).
Bookmarks (Netscape)
A bookmarks or favorites option on the browser toolbar allows you to make a quick link to a site you want to remember or visit often.
A browser is a system (such as Netscape or Explorer) that gives you the guidance and tools to explore the Internet.
Frequently Asked Questions are documents or text on a web site answering questions many visitors to the site have asked.
Favorites (Explorer)
A favorites or bookmarks option on the browser toolbar allows you to make a quick link to a site you want to remember or visit often.
Find Button
Find is a button in the Netscape and Explorer tool bars that you can use to find a word in a large document.
(Netscape and Explorer Menu Option)
"GO" is a Netscape and Explorer menu option that keeps a list of the web sites you visit during your computer session.
History tells you where you have been on the WWW in one session from the most recent site backwards.
Home Button
Home is a button on the Netscape or Explorer tool bar that will return you to your browser's home page.
Home Page
The Home page is the main starting page for a web site. It usually has basic information about the sponsors and purpose of the site. A Home page usually has both text and graphics.
A hyperlink is a "clickable" connection between one part of a document and another.
Hypertext is "clickable" text in a web site that moves you immediately from one part of a document to another. Most hypertext is underlined and a different color from the rest of the text.
An icon is a clickable picture used as a shortcut on web sites and computer programs. Typical icons include those for printing (printer); home page (house); electronic folder (folder); and mailbox (email).
The Internet is the interconnection of computer networks in all parts of the world.
A menu is a list of choices for computer options and procedures. Examples of menu items include File, Edit, Search, View, and many others.
A modem is a device that lets you access the Internet through a telephone line to a computer.
A mouse is a palm-sized device usually designed to roll on a table that lets you point to features on a monitor screen, then choose a feature by clicking one of two buttons on the mouse.
Search (keyword)
On a web site, a keyword search allows you to key a term into a text box and click on an "Enter", "Submit" or "Go" button. At that point, the search program matches your text to that in the web site, and moves you to where that matching text is.
Search (Directory - Menu)
A directory or menu on a web site allows you to search the site by clicking on items listed in that directory or menu.
Search Box or Window
A search box or window on a web site is a place where you can type in the keywords for which you are searching.
Search Filter
A search filter is a term or set of terms you can key in to narrow your search on a web site. For example, you could limit your search by geographic area or date.
Uniform Resource Locator. A URL is the address for a web site.
Word Processor
A word processor is a software program that allows you to create documents. It lets you format, edit, check spelling and print text.
World Wide Web. Hypertext (clickable) links that make navigation and use of the information on the Internet possible.

[ top ]

To contact the SPRY Foundation

SPRY (Setting Priorities for Retirement Years) Foundation
10 G Street, NE, Suite 600
Washington, DC 20002
202-216-0401 (voice)
202-216-0779 (fax)

About the SPRY Foundation

SPRY Foundation - Setting Priorities for Retirement Years
SPRY (Setting Priorities for Retirement Years) Foundation is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit research foundation with a mission to promote Successful Aging in the domains of financial security, physical health and wellness, mental health and social environment, and intellectual pursuits. SPRY is the research and education arm of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, and works independently by partnering with organizations to develop and test modules, curricula, training programs, and guides that empower older adults in the four domains. For more information on SPRY's current projects and publication, call (202) 216-0401 or visit www.spry.org.

About the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare

The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare
The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare is a grassroots advocacy and education association, with millions of members and supporters, dedicated to protecting these entitlements earned by all Americans. The National Committee is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, tax-exempt organization independent of Congress or any government agency. For more information on the National Committee, call (202) 216-0420 or (800) 966-1935, or visit their website at www.ncpssm.org.


The guide does not offer medical advice and nothing contained in the guide is intended to be professional advice for medical diagnosis or treatment.

The Foundation has developed the guide in order to provide resources for older adults and their caregivers who use the World Wide Web (the Web) to find information on health and medicine related topics. The guide includes examples of Web sites from the federal government, non-profit organizations, and educational institutions. The Foundation's reference to these sites is not an endorsement of the sites and implies no association with these sites or their operators. Further, the Foundation is not responsible for the content of these sites, and does not make any representation that they will continue to be maintained as they are on the date of the publication of the guide, or that they will be updated to include advances in medical knowledge.

The Foundation assumes no responsibility for how users use the information provided in the guide, or on any Web site that is referenced by the guide. The use of third-party Web sites is at the user's own risk and subject to the terms and conditions of use for such sites. The Foundation cannot assure that the information that is available on or through these Web sites is exhaustive or complete on every subject or that it will necessarily include all of the most recent information available on a particular topic, or that the site or information contained on the site will be suitable for a particular individual or for a particular purpose.

Individuals should always seek the advice of a health care provider prior to starting any new treatment, and to obtain information that is specific to their condition. Likewise, individuals should never delay, ignore or fail to seek medical advice based on information obtained through any Web site.

Guide Development Team


The SPRY Foundation would like to thank the following individuals who reviewed this guide for publication:

About This Guide

This guide is the result of the SPRY Foundation Conference: Older Adults, Health Information and the World Wide Web, held at the Natcher Center at the National Institutes of Health on February 26 - 28, 2001. The SPRY Foundation would like to thank the institutions that supported both the conference and the development of this guide:

U.S. Government Agencies

Private Organizations

[ top ]