Looking for health information online usually feels like casting your line in a swamp of "alternative" treatments and snake oil. But the folks behind a new domain—.health—want to help people identify legitimate sources of medical information.
The domain head honcho—the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) —gave the responsibility for new .health websites to a Miami-based company, dotHealth, which will oversee who gets to purchase the shiny new suffix. This week, dotHealth CEO Jose Rasco announced that they will begin selling registrations to trademarked health companies in May, and open it to the public in December.
The goal is to have .health addresses become an identifier for qualified medical companies and websites providing important, reliable information. "With more information online, it has become more difficult to distinguish the credible information, particularly when it comes to health," Rasco said in an email interview. "The .health TLD will provide a home for health information online that is focused, credible and meaningful."
According to Rasco, the company will take specific steps to ensure that those who get .health addresses will be dependable. An advisory board will review all applicants, and fake pharmacies, for example, will not be allowed to purchase the new domain. A security protocol administered by Neustar, the largest provider of core registry and digital naming services, will also help deter misuse.
Some experts worry that the .health approval process won't be stringent enough to prevent internet users from being sold fake cures. Consumers have come to recognize that certain domain extensions, like .gov or .edu, lead to bona fide websites, but there's no clear indication that .health websites will be audited the same way.
"I don't think this will improve the quality of health information online. And I don't think it will be a service to consumers unless additional safeguards are put in place," said Timothy Mackey, director of the Global Health Policy Institute at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine.
"If you're relying on doctor Google to diagnose your disease — which a lot of people do — or if you're relying on it to self-determine what your treatment options are, or if you're just worried about your kid and it's 5 a.m. and their leg is hurting or something like that — which I'm guilty of myself — then you really should be looking at reputable websites that are associated with evidence-based information, sites like Mayo Clinic, or PubMed."
Mackey argued that dotHealth's evaluation process isn't transparent and that the company hasn't responded to public health officials' concerns. "When you talk about .health sites, ideally they would have evidence-based information that is non-biased, that is objective and has been vetted and verified by a third party or perhaps by people that have a public health background," he said. Otherwise, websites could provide inaccurate information about vaccines, for example. Or anyone with the highest bid could easily get a coveted address like diet.health.
Moreover, if ICANN decides to release a slew of other health-related domains — like .med, .doctor, or .clinic — as it suggested in 2011, people may have the same difficulty in differentiating among all the options that they face now.
Some groups of domain owners have started collaborating in an effort to set standards for verifying which websites are allowed to register for which addresses. But according to Mackey, if internet users really want good health information, they need to look to academic institutions and be more critical of commercial websites for now.