Quality of patient-facing health information online varies depending on forum, study says

As patients increasingly turn to the Internet for health information, different sources — such as search engine results versus online health communities — offer varying quality levels of that information.

A study published in Journal of Medical Informatics Research sought to better understand the strengths and weaknesses of different types of information available on the Internet. Researchers examined questions and answers posted to online health communities and compared the responses with those provided in a search engine. Researchers classified questions and queries into three types: those regarding fact (whether something is true and questions regarding factual information), policy (questions regarding what course of action to take to solve a problem) and value (questions asking for an evaluation of an event or to share personal experiences).

Overall, researchers found online health communities answered more questions than an Internet search engine did. Search engine queries mostly effectively answered value questions and least effectively answered policy questions. Community responses most answered policy questions and least answered fact questions. The researchers found fact question search results were the most clinically valid.

"Guiding patients toward accurate information obtained through search results helps providers by not having to correct misconceptions patients build through information they gather via search results," according to the study authors. "It would be helpful to patients for providers to guide them in searching for information online and in determining whether information is trustworthy."

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