Browsing the Web could soon beat out baseball as the American pastime. Many of your employees use the Internet to research their health care options, their new diagnoses or their new diet. The problem is, there are thousands, if not millions, of health care websites.

How do you know which site is going to give solid, unbiased advice? Many sites look like reliable information resources, but are actually published by interest groups, industry associations or drug manufacturers.

As an example, search the word "arthritis" on Google. Of the 40 million results, two of the first sites listed are www.arthritisrxtreatment.com and www.treatoapain.com.

The first site is sponsored by Celebrex, a drug made by Pfizer, often used in the treatment of the symptoms of osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. The second is sponsored by Vimovo, a drug made by Astra Zeneca to relieve arthritis pain.

It's obvious why a pharmaceutical company would want their sites front and center. But while these sponsored sites can offer good information, they can often leave out important things, too; thus consumers are not getting the whole story.

And if I've encouraged patients to do anything throughout my nursing career, it's to become an educated consumer.

In 2003, Consumer Reports WebWatch and the Health Improvement Institute created www.healthratings.org, designed to be a dynamic resource to provide consumers with periodic and independent evaluations of various types of health websites.  Although the site is no longer updated, it still features valuable information.

Many of the sites included in its "Top 20" are still offering solid, easy-to-understand guidance for health care consumers.

When navigating health information on the Internet, MedlinePlus, a service of the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. National Library of Medicine, provide tips on evaluating Web-based health resources that you can pass along to employees:

* Consider the source. Who is responsible for the content? Look for an "About Us" page. Check to see who runs the site. Is it a branch of the government, a nonprofit organization, a professional association, a health system, a commercial organization or an individual?

The site should offer a way to contact the webmaster or the organization. If the site provides no such information, or if you can't easily find out who runs the site, be careful.

* Know who's paying. Sites sponsored by drugmakers or other vendors may contain biased information. Advertisements should be clearly labeled as "advertisement" or "from our sponsor." If a page about treatment of depression recommends one drug by name, see if you can tell if the company making that drug provides the information for the site.

If yes, consult another source to see what they say about that drug.

* Check for current information. Look for dates on documents, especially for certain health conditions. A document on coping with the loss of a loved one doesn't need to be current but a document on the latest treatment of HIV/AIDS does.

* Look for medical research, not opinion. Look for the author of the information, either an individual or an organization. Good examples are "Written by Jane Smith, RN" or "Copyright 2008, American Cancer Society."

If there are testimonials on the site, look for contact information such as an e-mail address or phone number. If the testimonials are anonymous or hard to track down, be careful.

* Focus on quality. All websites are not created equal. Does the site have an editorial board? This information is typically on the 'About Us' page, or it may be under the mission statement or part of the annual report.

See if board members are experts in the subject of the site. A site on osteoporosis whose medical advisory board is composed of attorneys and accountants is not medically authoritative. Sometimes the site will have information "about our writers" or "about our authors" instead of an editorial policy. Review to see who has written the information.

There are still some top health care information sites that are recognized throughout the health care industry as offering solid data.

When your employees need help, coach them to first use sites like WebMD, National Institutes of Health at Health.NIH.gov, MayoClinic.com, Cancer.gov, FamilyDoctor.org and Drugs.com. For cancer diagnoses, suggest looking at ClinicalTrials.gov for information on available clinical trials.

When all else fails, there is still the tried-and-true method of talking with a health care provider or nurse advocate to learn about a condition or diagnosis.


Contributing Editor Betty Long is a registered nurse and founder of Guardian Nurses Healthcare Advocates, a health care advocacy firm that has helped thousands of patients navigate the health care system and saved millions of dollars in health care costs.

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