More MS news articles for February 2001

Health websites can be unhealthy

Contact: Keith Randall
Texas A&M University

COLLEGE STATION - What could be coming from the Surgeon General: "Warning -- What You Read on the Web Could be Hazardous to Your Health."

There is yet no disclaimer on health web sites that contain a Surgeon General's warning that what you read can be harmful, but perhaps there should be. Health web sites can be downright unhealthy.

Health web sites can have information that is inaccurate, misleading, unproven and even false, and many of them aren't worth the eyestrain it takes to read them, according to a study by a Texas A&M University professor.

Dr. Steve Dorman, professor of health and kinesiology, has studied the vast array of health web sites and has reached this conclusion: reader beware.

"The basic problem is one of accountability - there is none," says Dorman, whose study has been previously published in the Journal of School Health.

"The freedom of the Internet means that anybody can say anything. There is no governing body that acts as a gatekeeper of Web pages, and we found that a lot of health information out there is inaccurate and just not true."

There are more than 43 million web sites, Dorman says, and at least 10,000 of those post health information. One big problem deals with getting the information on the screen.

"About 60 percent of the time, people cannot call up the web address that is listed," Dorman notes. "That can be frustrating early on - trying to get information and you can't."

Another big problem: credentials of the person posting the web site. Very often, the author of the page does not list any degrees earned in a medical or health field, has no affiliation with a reputable health agency and fails to cite references in his or her findings.

"If the author fails to list his credentials, that should raise a big question mark about what is posted," Dorman believes.

"Some basic questions the reader should ask are, 'Is this author qualified to publish health information, and does the author list his or her occupation, experience and education?' "

Another big problem: sponsors.

Many web sites might tout the advantages of a particular drug or treatment, but the site is sponsored by a major drug company. That should raise immediate concerns of credibility, Dorman believes.

"Who is sponsoring a site should always be one of the first questions the reader should have," he says.

"Another finding we learned is that many people cannot distinguish between information and advertising on the web. The lines here can be very blurred - it's like the infomercials you see on television. Everything looks authentic and credible, but it's basically an ad promoting a product."

Some of the most confusing and unreliable information posted, Dorman says, deals with specific diseases. Cancer, multiple sclerosis and other devastating illnesses are prime targets.

"While many of these sites are reputable and accurate, there are also many that give out bad advice," he says.

Dorman says until there is a panel of health experts who can rate health web sites and rank them according to accuracy and valuable information, there is one credo a web page reader should follow:

"Read with caution," he believes. "That may be the best advice to anyone who calls up a health web site."

Contact: Keith Randall (979) 845-4644 or Steve Dorman at (979) 845-3124.