European Union benefits from URAC expertise to define criteria for health Web site quality

Brussels 08 June 2001Delegates from government departments, industry, international organisations, and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) gathered at a two-day workshop in Brussels. The participants discussed current practices and pilots with the objective of developing a shared set of key quality criteria which may be used by European Union Member States to form the basis of future policy tools for assuring quality of information on health related Web sites. URAC, the American Accreditation Health Care Commission, was invited to the event to share its expertise in designing quality standards as well as an accreditation programme for health Web sites.

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Developing a set of quality criteria for health Web sites is one of the four actions set out in the Health Online chapter of the eEurope action plan, which was devised following the Lisbon Council in March 2000. Guy D'Andrea, senior vice president of URAC, told the attendees at the meeting that consumers have little assurance of the reliability of the information they get from health Web sites and are concerned about their trustworthiness. "Health Web site accreditation will help consumers make informed choices by pointing them to Web sites which demonstrate they meet rigorous standards for quality and accountability", stated Mr. D'Andrea.

Mr. D'Andrea cited a recent study his organisation conducted in conjunction with Harris Interactive. Over three quarters of consumers using the Web said they would have more trust in health Web sites that achieve a "seal of approval". Only 21 percent trusted government to accredit health Web sites in the United States, whereas most opted for some private independent organisation to assume the role. "The Internet does not recognise the geographic boundaries, and we must work to promote quality for health Web sites worldwide", Mr. D'Andrea added.

For its part, URAC has established quality standards for accreditation that will go into effect later this year. As currently drafted, the standards address issues such as health Web site content, disclosures, complaint mechanisms, and consumer privacy. The group meeting in Brussels is currently working on criteria for health Web sites for use by the different member countries of the European Union. Under the eEurope 2002 action plan, all E.U. member countries have agreed that quality assurance of health related Web sites is a crucial issue for Europe, much as key stakeholders in the United States are making health Web site quality a priority.

Speaking during one of the workshop sessions, Enterprise and Information Society Commissioner Erkki Liikanen stressed the roles that both Member States and the Commission must play in order to achieve the objectives set in eEurope's Health Online chapter. Other health oriented actions are the identification and dissemination of best practices in eHealth, in order to help purchasing departments in decision making; the establishment of a series of data networks in order to assist with informed national health care planning; and the drafting of a communication on legal aspects of eHealth, that should clarify which existing legislation has exercised an impact on eHealth so as to remove some of the uncertainties expressed by industry.

"The overall idea is to learn from what exists already, harness current activities and move forward in a coherent manner. While the policy makers traditionally move within State boundaries, the Internet recognises this type of boundaries with only the faintest nod", said Commissioner Liikanen. Mr. Liikanen stressed that the Member States and Commission must work together in order to attain important objectives.

"The Member State administration forms, of course, the key actor in achieving the objectives set out in the Health Online chapter. However, a European dimension to the challenge exists in the identification as well as the dissemination of best practices, and the joint development of relevant benchmarking criteria for eHealth", continued the Commissioner. "The message is clear. Either we step into the information age together, determinedly, now, or our future will be compromised", Mr. Liikanen concluded.

URAC is one of the premier non-profit, health-focused organisations in the United States and is specialised in the accreditation of managed care and speciality organisations. Established in 1990, URAC offers 11 accreditation programmes and currently plans to introduce an independent accreditation programme for health Web sites later this year. More information about this Health Web Site Accreditation Programme is to be found at the URAC Web site. You can also read the VMW article How to judge a healthy medical Web site.


Leslie Versweyveld

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