CHCF/RAND Study Finds Online Health Information ‘Accurate’ but ‘Incomplete’
While online health information is "generally accurate," it is usually "incomplete" and written in "difficult language that is hard for many readers to understand," according to an "important" new study in this week's Journal of the American Medical Association, the Wall Street Journal reports (Rundle, Wall Street Journal, 5/23). The study found that government and university health Web sites "did better" at conveying accurate and useful health information than did commercial sites. Conducted by researchers affiliated with RAND and commissioned by the California HealthCare Foundation, the study is "the broadest on the topic to date" (Hilts, New York Times, 5/23). Nearly 100 million Americans look for health information on the Internet, and 70% of them say that information "influences their treatment decisions" (Washington Post, 5/23). Seeking to determine the quality, accessibility and readability of health care information on both English-language and four Spanish-language Web sites, the researchers conducted three studies, looking for information about four medical conditions: breast cancer, childhood asthma, depression and obesity. In the first study, they evaluated the accessibility of health information using 10 English-language and four Spanish-language search engines. In the second, they considered the quality of the health information on 18 English-language and seven Spanish-language health Web sites. The third study evaluated the reading grade level of health sites (Berland et al., JAMA, 5/23).
The researchers concluded that search engines are "inefficient tools for locating relevant health information," because consumers must first "sift through a lot of irrelevant material" during their searches. Among the English-language search engines, about one in five of the links led to "relevant" information, while one in nine links from Spanish-language search engines did so (Report summary, 5/2001). Additionally, the accuracy of health care content was found to vary for different health conditions. For example, on English-language sites, an average of 91% of online information about breast cancer was accurate, while 75% of information about depression was accurate (JAMA, 5/23). Finally, the study found that most Internet health information is "difficult for the average consumer to understand" (Report Summary, May 2001). The average English-language site was written at the collegiate reading level, and the average Spanish-language site was written at the 10th grade level (JAMA, 5/23).
"Health information on the Internet is inefficient, incomplete and incomprehensible to many Americans," Sam Karp, CHCF's chief information officer, said, adding that online content "has progressed from early childhood to what I would call an awkward adolescence. It's gaining in scope but still not dependable or reliable." Dr. Gretchen Berland, the study's lead author, added, "The Internet has the potential to be a powerful resource for meeting some of the public's health information needs. Ideally, consumers would be able to learn much of what they need to know from high-quality Web sites, so that the limited time they have with their physicians could be used more efficiently" (Laino, MSNBC.com, 5/22). CHCF President Dr. Mark Smith said that the study shows that patients need to discuss online health care information with their doctors. Patients "should not take this stuff as gospel," he said (AP/Newsday, 5/23). For more information on the study, go to
http://ehealth.chcf.org/view.cfm?section=Industry&itemID=3973. To read the JAMA report, go to