A new health Web site is creating a media buzz, thanks in part to Oprah and her friends. Sharecare.com is developed by Jeff Arnold (founder of WebMD) and Mehmet Oz in collaboration with a handful of companies like Discovery Communications, Sony, and Harpo Studios (Oprah’s production company). It’s an interactive Web site where consumers can ask health and wellness questions and get answers from any number of sources—from the American Cancer Society to Dr. Oz to Colgate.
Yes, some health questions will be answered by companies who sell health, beauty, and pharmaceutical products. There can be multiple answers to the same question, which leaves it up to the consumer to judge which answer is most relevant and most credible. The problem is that many online health information seekers don’t consider the source of information, and often don’t have the skills to effectively evaluate the credibility of the information they find.
So how do you judge the quality of health information found on the Web? Here are a few things to look for outlined in the National Library of Medicine’s Guide to Healthy Web Surfing:
- Check the Source: Who runs the site? Are they a company, government agency, nonprofit, or educational organization? Can you easily contact the organization or Webmaster?
- Quality and Evidence: Does the site have an editorial board? Does the board have expertise in the topics on the site? Are the health claims on the site backed up by a credible source?
- Currency: When was the information published? Is it outdated? Is the content reviewed periodically?
- Sponsor: Who paid for the site? Is it clear when information on the site is an advertisement?
Thinking about these key questions may give users pause before taking skin care advice from Dove. But running through this list takes time, effort, and a certain level of health and media literacy.
With more consumers going to the Web with their health questions, more companies are jumping into the online health information business. And while Sharecare.com is well designed and executed, the site blurs the line between health information and advertising.
The emergence of sites like Sharecare.com is inevitable and may even prove to be an effective means of health education. (We remain cautiously optimistic.) One thing we know for sure: the current online health information landscape is getting crowded.
- How can we ensure consumers have the skills to differentiate medical facts from marketing?
- How do we balance user-driven health content (we love it!) with important information on less sexy health topics (like immunizations and screenings)?
- In the face of mounting competition, can health information Web sites sponsored by credible public sector institutions survive?
Sharecare.com’s mission is to answer the world’s questions about health. At CommunicateHealth, Sharecare generates more questions than answers.