Researchers have shown that only 15 per cent of websites on prostate cancer are reliable, they say they can be easily identified.
All people need do is download a free toolbar which indicates if a site is accredited by the World Health Organisation.
The criteria for accreditation are strict and commercial websites or those that lack transparency, adequate data or offer biased information are excluded.
The toolbar turns red when a site is accredited and remains pale if it is not. It’s called the HonCode which is short for ‘Health on the Net Foundation Code of Conduct’.
It showed only one in six prostate cancer websites is accredited. The same ratio applies to benign prostate disease too.
Nathan Lawrentschuk, urologist and associate professor at Melbourne University, has been analysing web content for the past seven years.
After the meeting, he told The Australian Financial Review that the study used 10 keywords related to prostate cancer and searched the first 150 websites on Google relating to these words.
“We wanted to test if commercial companies could push their material forward, relegating the decent sites back a page or two, ” said Lawrentschuk, who has appointments at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute at the Austin Hospital.
“We wanted to know if you go deeper into the search, do you get better quality?” he said.
“But we found the quality at the front is slightly better. It may be that a site, such as the Prostate Cancer Foundation of Australia, is near the front because it is so popular.”
Lawrentschuk said many sites that appear independent have hidden commercial drivers and are often surrogates for the marketing of a new piece of technology, such as the surgical robot or the radiation tool, the CyberKnife.
Often these sites don’t present balanced information or verifiable opinions and would not be accredited by HonCode.
“We found that websites related to open prostatectomies have a slightly higher chance of being classified as reliable than those for robotics,” says Lawrentschuk, who performs robotic surgery.
Rather than rating the quality of the information, it simply holds site developers to ethical standards and ensures readers know the source and the purpose of the data.
Although up to 2 per cent of high-class websites may not have sought accreditation, Lawrentschuk says in general men should be ultra-sceptical of unaccredited sites – “otherwise you can’t be sure you are reading transparent high quality, unbiased information.”