Researching treatments online

For those facing a serious—or even incurable—condition, the Internet can seem to be the last refuge of hope. But how can you distinguish a trustworthy website from that of a huckster? “Follow the money” is an important key for deciding if a website is truly unbiased. Start by asking yourself who, what, and why.

Who: Whose site is it? Websites cost money to create. Who is paying? Check the “About Us” page. If the source of money is not obvious, use “Contact Us” to ask, “Who are you and how do you get your funding?” Keep that funding in mind as a possible source of bias.

What: What kind of information is provided?

  • Is it a research-based news article? Does it cite research done in university or government studies? Is there mention of “randomized clinical trials”? These are the gold standard of science.
  • Is it a blog? Is it one person’s opinion, or are other sources included? What are the author’s credentials? Are they reliable?
  • Is it a forum (or “chat room”)? Anyone can speak in a forum. Chat rooms offer a wealth of practical tips for day-to-day coping with side effects. But they are not reliable sources for evaluating the success rate of treatments.
  • Is it really just a sales piece? Does it make claims about a treatment sold by the sponsor? If so, review multiple sources and look for promises that are backed by credible research as described above.

Why: Does the website identify its purpose? Government and university websites typically have a mission to educate. The websites of nonprofit organizations usually weave education with advocacy. A for-profit company is not automatically suspect. Many generously share their expertise through educational articles. Simply use caution if they ask for your personal information or if the talk turns to specific treatments that they themselves sell.