Background: The massive growth of health information on the Internet; the global nature of the Internet; the seismic shift taking place in the relationships of various actors in this arena, and the absence of real protection from harm for citizens who use the Internet for health purposes are seen to be real problems. One response to many of these problems has been the burgeoning output of codes of conduct by numerous organizations trying to address quality of health information.
Objectives: Review the major self-regulatory initiatives in the English-speaking world to develop quality and ethical standards for health information on the Internet. Compare and analyze the approaches taken by the different initiatives. Clarify the issues around the development and enforcement of standards.
Methods: Quality initiatives selected meet one or more of the following criteria: Self-regulatory. A reasonable constituency. Diversity (eg, of philosophy, approach and process)-to achieve balance and wide representation, and to illustrate and compare different approaches. Historic value. A wider reach than a national audience, except when its reach is a significant sector of the Internet health information industry. The initiatives were compared in 3 ways: (1) Analysis and comparison of: key concepts, mechanism, or approach. Analysis of: the obligations that a provider has to meet to comply with the given initiative, the intended beneficiaries of that initiative, and the burdens imposed on different actors. These burdens are described in terms of their effect on the long-term sustainability and maintenance of the initiative by its developers. Analysis of the enforcement mechanisms. (2) Analysis and comparison by type of sponsoring organization, the reach of the initiative, and the sources of funding of the initiative or the sponsoring organization. (3) How the various initiatives fall under 1 of 3 key mechanisms and comparison of the advantages and disadvantages of these key mechanisms.
Results: The issues that affect the initiatives and future work on the quality of health information on the Internet are identified and analyzed. These issues are: (a) Three key mechanisms used in the quality initiatives (b) Sustainability issues that affect the initiatives: Burdens placed on health information providers, citizens and others. Currency and maintenance issues of the initiatives. Funding. Cost. Acceptance. Market conditions. User indifference or ambivalence. (c) Enforcement issues surrounding the initiatives (d) Adequacy of approach, scope, reach, and enforcement provisions of the various quality initiatives (e) Gaps that need to be addressed to achieve good quality of health information on the internet
Conclusions: Ten conclusions are presented. A framework of action to be undertaken by the World Health Organization in the field of quality of health information on the Internet is recommended.