Many people use the internet to get medical information that can affect their treatment choices. It is vital to make sure you get information about complementary and alternative therapies from reliable and professional organisation websites.
People might use the internet to find cancer related information because they:
- didn’t get as much information as they wanted from their doctor
- want as much information as possible
- want to find support groups on line (virtual support groups and virtual communities)
- have a relative or friend with cancer and want to find out more without asking too many questions
Using the internet to find information
The internet can be an easy and effective way to find information about complementary and alternative cancer therapies. But, it can be difficult to know which of the millions of websites provide reliable information.
The information available ranges from accurate and useful to dangerous and wrong.
A UK study in 2003 assessed 32 complementary and alternative medicine websites. The researchers found that most sites gave valuable and reliable information. But they didn't back this up with accurate scientific evidence. They thought a small number of sites were dangerous and gave advice that could potentially cause harm.
The researchers concluded that the quality of the information was extremely varied. Many sites support unproven therapies and some of these are very dangerous. This is only one study but it shows how important it is to access reliable and accurate information.
You might find the following tips helpful if you are having trouble seeing which sites are risky and which are reputable.
How to find reliable information
There are particular things to look out for when checking whether a website is reputable.
Researchers in Canada found that asking 4 simple questions about a website can help to test the reliability of information about alternative cancer therapies.
For each website you look at, ask:
- does the website describe the therapy as a cure for cancer?
- does the website state that the therapy has no side effects?
- can you buy the therapy or book treatments online from this website?
- are there patient testimonials on the site?
If your answer to any of these is yes, particularly to the first two questions, then it should ring alarm bells.
The more yes answers you have, the more likely it is that the information is inaccurate, and that there is no scientific evidence to support the use of the therapy.
The research found that if you answer no to all of these questions then the website information was probably reliable and based on scientific proof.
But this is just one study. These questions alone may not always be enough to ensure that a website is reliable.
Who wrote and reviewed the information?
You should be able to find details of who wrote the information on the website. Look at the author’s qualifications to see if they are relevant to the written information on the site.
For example, on this website, you can find out about the writing and editorial teams, and our external reviewers.
Check that the information is current. Reliable sites regularly review and update their information. Each page should clearly show the date it was last reviewed.
You can also check:
- that there is clear information about the qualifications of the people who review the information
- whether there is a variety of reliable sources about where their information comes from
- information about the site’s editorial board, if appropriate
- details of the site’s linking policy – whether the links to other websites are random, or whether it includes mainly sponsored (paid for) website links
Who is paying to publish the website?
You should be able to find information on the website homepage about who publishes or sponsors it. This helps you decide whether the website or a specific article on a site is reliable.
Check if the organisation sponsoring the website is trying to sell you a product. And think about what's in it for them.
For example, an article about alternative cancer diets may have a very different angle if it is published on a commercial website than if it were published by a Government body or professional organisation.
Can you contact the website?
You should be able to find contact information on the website for either the author or sponsoring organisation.
This could be at least one of the below:
- an email address
- a telephone number
- a mailing address
This is important for any questions, problems or feedback you have about the website.
The website should tell you what the terms and conditions are for using the chat room, if it has this facility. It should also tell you whether you have to pay for the service.
You need to know who is responsible for monitoring online discussions. Health professionals may not be monitoring online chat rooms or discussion forums about alternative and complementary therapies. So it isn’t always easy to decide whether the information you get is reliable. You may just be getting another person's opinion.
Other information to look for
It may help to check the last 3 letters of the website address. When the website is for a certain country, the last 3 letters might have the country name abbreviation after it. For example, .org.uk for the United Kingdom or .com.au for Australia.
The list below gives you some clues about where and who the information comes from, which can be useful:
- commercial activity sites end in .com
- government agency sites end in .gov
- educational institution sites such as universities end in .ac or .edu
- a charity or non profit organisation site ends in .org
- a network organisation site ends in .net
Making your decision
Before you decide to use any type of therapy you have read about on the internet, it is also important to:
- ask your health care professionals' opinions
- find out about the website author, sponsors, and other facts
- find out if there has been any scientific research into this therapy
- look at the list of complementary therapy organisations to find other websites with reliable information
- read about the therapy on our pages about individual therapies