Web experts weigh value of 'trustmarks' for health sites

A seal of approval on a health information Web site should not automatically instill consumer confidence, according to experts who discussed the role of such "trustmarks" at a Health Improvement Institute workshop Monday.

Whatever rating "you come up with has to be page-specific, rather than just domain-specific," Tom Eng, president and founder of health search engine Healia, said in explaining the difficulty of putting trustmarks on health sites.

The Good Housekeeping seal of approval does not apply to information on the Internet, despite such claims as "certified by the American Heart Association" or "dermatologist recommended," many of the participants agreed.

The dialogue regarding site ratings -- part of a daylong workshop on the quality of health information on the Internet -- was intended to stimulate ideas for policy-making. Participants included representatives from Consumer Reports WebWatch, Indiana University, the New Jersey Institute of Technology and WebMD.

In theory, consumers should be able to click on a trustmark symbol and be taken to a page that lists the requirements for earning that certification, said Jorgen Wouters, senior Web producer at Consumer Reports WebWatch. But he added that sometimes the links are dead, the ratings are outdated or the information is not helpful.

Some in attendance said that nowadays, a brand name such as WebMD is perceived to be the same thing as a trustmark -- though neither is conclusive in measuring quality.

Murray Turoff, information systems professor emeritus at NJIT, who is now consulting the National Library of Medicine on a national disaster information system, noted that the critical issue in making trustmarks trustworthy may be transparency. Web users should be able to see the qualifications of the individual graders that entitled them to evaluate the information.

William Liss-Levinson, vice president and chief strategy and operation officer for Castle Connolly Medical, said the words "trust" and "trustmarks" convey different concepts to different people. The meaning depends on whether someone is a patient, physician or other healthcare provider, and the level of trust that person is seeking.

Personally, Liss-Levinson said he is "terrified" when customers tell him they choose their physicians based solely on the information in his company's top doctor listings.

Eng added, "We'd all want consumers to have the best information" to make the best health decision, but "trust is only one factor."

If a cancer patient is considering radiation, perhaps the best information is not a rating but a profile of another individual with a similar background who just went through the procedure.

Turoff questioned how well consumers can trust details from even lofty institutions like the U.S. government when it outlaws Canadian drugs.

Perhaps the purpose of such endorsements is "to remove distrust," Indiana University marketing professor Kim Saxton said.

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