The government should do more to help people find trustworthy health websites and use on-line health services safely and effectively, says a new report.

The study, by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, says that on-line health information and services are convenient to use and extend choice, but also warns that they could mislead, confuse or create unnecessary anxiety for the people who use them.

“The Internet is now often the first port of call for people to find out more about their health. People need to know where they can get accurate health information, how to buy medicines on-line safely, and how any personal information about their health posted on-line might be used,” said Professor Christopher Hood, chair of the working party that produced the report.

The working party considered a range of new technologies and services which their providers say offer more “personalised healthcare,” and their report makes a number of recommendations for policy. In each case, the need to protect people from harm and to safeguard personal information is weighed up against the need to give people freedom to make their own choices.

“We recommend that all websites offering health information and advice should state where the information originates and what it is based upon, who wrote it and how the author or organisation is funded. Advertisements for medicines and products should also be clearly distinguished from other types of information,” says Prof Hood.

The report concludes that the best websites for health advice are those which are based on high quality peer-reviewed research, from independent not-for-profit organisations, and are independently evaluated and continuously updated; the National Health Service (NHS) websites and those of the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) generally meet these criteria, it adds.

In 2009 an Oxford Internet Survey found that in 2007 and 2009, 68% of Internet users in the UK had used the Internet to look up health information. 

Turning to on-line pharmacies, the Council endorses the UK registration scheme but adds that the government should make more information about the scheme available, as people don’t always know that it exists.

“Britain is leading the way when it comes to on-line pharmacies and patient safety, but there is nothing stopping people buying medicines from Internet pharmacies based in other countries that are not regulated in the same way,” says Professor Nikolas Rose, one of the report’s authors.

“If you choose to buy medicines from a website that is not certified in the same way as registered on-line pharmacies in the UK, you risk buying harmful, fake or low-quality products. You could also miss out on advice from doctors and pharmacists about adverse effects and interactions with other medicines you may be taking,” he warns.

The Council also recommends that the UK registration scheme should be mirrored elsewhere in order to restrict the sale of medicines, including antibiotics, over the Internet.

In 2008, approximately two million people in the UK were regularly purchasing pharmaceuticals on-line, both with a prescription from registered UK pharmacies and without prescriptions from other websites, while a 2009 survey found that more than one in seven adults polled had bought a prescription-only medicine online without a prescription, it notes. 

The authors also call for better regulation of direct-to-consumer personal DNA testing services that claim to predict the risk of developing diseases in future, and body scanning services which are offered to healthy people as a check-up.

“The results of personal DNA testing and body scanning are often hard to interpret, unreliable and may cause people unnecessary anxiety,” says Prof Hood. “Better regulation is needed to ensure people are fully aware of the limitations of these services.”