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Looking for complementary or alternative therapy information on the web

Nurse and patients talking about cancer

This page tells you about finding reliable web information about complementary and alternative cancer therapies. There is information about

 

Why people with cancer use the internet

People might use the internet to find cancer related information because

  • They didn’t get as much information as they wanted from their doctor
  • They want as much information as possible
  • They want to find support groups on line (virtual support groups and virtual communities)
  • They have a relative or friend with cancer and want to find out more without asking too many questions

The internet is a major source of health information and many people use it to get medical information. This information is likely to affect their choice of treatment. People often use the internet to look up health information for families or friends who have cancer.

 

Using the internet to find information

Using the internet can be a very easy and effective way of finding information about complementary and alternative cancer therapies. But with millions of sites providing information, it can be difficult to know which ones are giving you 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. A small number of sites were thought to be 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.

In some cases it is easy to see which sites are risky and which are reputable. But if you are having trouble, you may find the following tips helpful.

 

How to find reliable information

There are particular things to look out for when checking that a website is reputable.

First questions to ask

Researchers in Canada have found that asking 4 simple questions about a website helps 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. 

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
  • Look at the complementary therapy reading list to get more information
  • Find out if there has been any scientific research into this therapy
  • Look at our complementary therapy organisations list to find other websites that have reliable information about complementary and alternative cancer therapies
  • Get more information about a therapy you are interested in from our pages about individual therapies
  • Check out guidelines, such as the DISCERN online website, which help you assess the quality of written health information

Who wrote and reviewed the information?

You should be able to find details of who wrote the information (the author) for the website. Look at the author’s qualifications and 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. It is important to check whether the information is current – reliable sites review and update their information regularly. 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. 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 a contact mailing or email address or telephone number on the website, either for the author or the sponsoring organisation. This is important if you have questions, problems or other feedback about the website. If the website has a chat room facility, it should tell you what the terms and conditions for using this service are. 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. The main ones to look for are

  • 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

This list gives you some clues about where and who the information comes from, which can be useful.

NB – If the website is specifically for a certain country, the last 3 letters may have the country name abbreviation after it. For example, .org.uk for the United Kingdom or .com.au for Australia.

 

How to find reliable websites

Find details of websites with reliable and evidence based information about complementary and alternative therapies on our complementary therapy organisations and websites page.

For websites about specific types of therapies, look at the pages in the individual therapies section.

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Updated: 24 October 2014