Efficacy of quality criteria to identify potentially harmful information: a cross-sectional survey of complementary and alternative medicine web sites.

Publication Date



J Med Internet Res. 2004 Apr–Jun; 6(2): e21.


BACKGROUND: Many users search the Internet for answers to health questions. Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is a particularly common search topic. Because many CAM therapies do not require a clinician's prescription, false or misleading CAM information may be more dangerous than information about traditional therapies. Many quality criteria have been suggested to filter out potentially harmful online health information. However, assessing the accuracy of CAM information is uniquely challenging since CAM is generally not supported by conventional literature.

OBJECTIVE: The purpose of this study is to determine whether domain-independent technical quality criteria can identify potentially harmful online CAM content. METHODS: We analyzed 150 Web sites retrieved from a search for the three most popular herbs: ginseng, ginkgo and St. John's wort and their purported uses on the ten most commonly used search engines. The presence of technical quality criteria as well as potentially harmful statements (commissions) and vital information that should have been mentioned (omissions) was recorded.

RESULTS: Thirty-eight sites (25%) contained statements that could lead to direct physical harm if acted upon. One hundred forty five sites (97%) had omitted information. We found no relationship between technical quality criteria and potentially harmful information.

CONCLUSIONS: Current technical quality criteria do not identify potentially harmful CAM information online. Consumers should be warned to use other means of validation or to trust only known sites. Quality criteria that consider the uniqueness of CAM must be developed and validated.


Complementary Therapies, Cross-Sectional Studies, Health Care Surveys, Humans, Internet, Medical Informatics, Quality Indicators, Health Care


PMCID: PMC1550600