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Health Information Online

Posted Apr 09 2009 7:14pm

As you all may know, I am a master’s student in bioethics.  Our curriculum covers a wide array of subjects and I am currently in a public health class learning about health communication campaigns (really quite an interesting subject!).  One of the major questions asked by public health communicators now is how reliable is the health information one finds online?  Today, in the United States, about half of the nation has looked online for health information, and over half of all adults have.  Eight of every ten Internet users have searched the Internet for health information.  I, of course, am wary of health information found online and try to avoid taking any advice from online–really it is best to only research maladies and symptoms rather than cures and remedies.  Always consult a doctor about modes of treatment.

I recently became aware of an organization based in Geneva, Switzerland that strives to provide certification to reliable health information websites, such as WebMd.  This organization, called “ Health On the Net Foundation,” evaluates websites in English, French, German, Spanish, and Chinese.  The HON Foundation was established  in 1995, went live online in 1996, and is accredited to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations.  The HON Foundation evaluates websites upon request for free and gives passing websites an HONcode Seal of Accreditation.  For instance, if you visit WebMD, take a look at the bottom of the page and you will see the HONcode seal.  (Other accreditations include URAC, which is an American based health care management foundation.  The HON Foundation reflects a more worldwide view of health information and focuses more on accuracy of information rather than care management.)

One of the most helpful features, for individuals, offered by the HON Foundation is the HONcode toolbar.  This toolbar can be downloaded for FireFox and Internet Explorer web browsers.  The user simply types in the search phrase (for example, “Pap smear”) and the toolbar then searches websites that have active accreditation from the HON Foundation.  HONcode websites can also be searched through the main page of the HON Foundation’s website, in case you don’t care for extra toolbars clogging up your web browser.  (Here are the results for the search phrase “Pap smear.”)

While the HON Foundation does have its weaknesses, it is, overall, a very useful tool for helping ensure the quality and accuracy of health information that individuals access through the Internet.  So check it out and remember it the next time you are searching for health information on the web.  Have questions, comments, or otherwise?  I would love to hear from you.

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