European Commission sets out quality criteria for health-related Web sites

Brussels 12 December 2002The European Commission has published a communication, outlining its quality criteria for Web sites offering health-related information to citizens. The communication comes after a decision was made by the European Council to support such an initiative within the eEurope 2002 Action Plan, and after wide consultation with governments, industry, international organisations, and representatives from medical and patient interest groups.

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Health-related Web sites are among the most frequently accessed on the Internet, and Erkki Liikanen, Commissioner for Enterprise and the Information Society, has been quoted as saying that: "It is therefore imperative that such Web sites and the services they provide meet high quality standards. I trust that our recommended standards will be welcomed and embraced by both the industry and Internet users in Europe."

Working on the material developed through a workshop with 60 representatives from government, industry, and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), as well as an on-line public consultation, a "Communication on Quality for Health-related Web sites" was drafted.

There are six key criteria contained within the communication:

  • Transparency and honesty: which includes the clear communication of the name and address of the site managers, the purpose of the site, its target audience, and transparency of all sources of funding;
  • Authority: involving a clear statement of sources for information, the date of publication, and the name and credentials of information providers;
  • Privacy and data protection: sites should have a data protection policy for processing personal data in accordance with European Union data protection legislation;
  • Updating of information: clear and regular updating of the site and its contents with the details of updates clearly published on the relevant page;
  • Accountability: includes a clearly defined editorial policy, a method for customer feedback, and appropriate oversight responsibility such as a quality compliance officer;
  • Accessibility: attention to guidelines on physical accessibility as well as general findability, searchability, readability, and usability.

According to the document, these criteria can be used as the basis for development of user guides, voluntary codes of conduct, filtering tools, trustmarks, or third party quality and accreditation systems at a European, national, or organisational level. The criteria should be applied in addition to the relevant Community law on consumer protection, advertising, data protection, and medicinal products.

The objective of the criteria is to guide Member States in possible implementation of quality assurance measures for the health-related Internet. The criteria address issues of both supplier and user education. They tell suppliers how to comply with key quality criteria and educate users as to what they ought to expect from a good health Web site. The criteria apply to both passive information giving sites, as well as sites that allow for transactions between service or information providers and users.

The Commission invites Member States and national and regional health authorities to implement the quality criteria, develop information campaigns, localise available information, and exchange information on how quality standards are implemented. The implementation of the criteria will be monitored by the Commission services in the context of the eEurope 2005 Action Plan.

The Commission answered calls for the creation of an European Union trustmark for health related Web sites by saying that such an initiative did not fall within the scope of the eEurope 2002 Action Plan, but said that it may be considered within future European programmes.

To read the communication, please consult the European Union Web pages.


Leslie Versweyveld

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