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To what extent and how do medical and popular media discuss issues of quality when it comes to health Web sites? The answer in brief is that while academic medical researchers are deeply concerned about the quality of Web sites that center on health, the popular media hardly attend to this issue. A deeper answer to the question uncovers more disconnects between academic Web site analysts, survey researchers, and popular media.
In the following reports, the members of a University of Pennsylvania research group that I directed explore this issue in two ways. First, they update and review an analysis of quantitative scholarly research on the quality of health Web sites. Second, they examine the general discussion of health Web sites over six months in 47 media outlets representing a wide range of media, from medical research journals to television network news operations.
The topic is important because so many people go online to get health information. A national survey conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project is perhaps most definitive. It found that 62 percent of internet users have gone online in search of health information. Extrapolating from its data, the Pew group further found that about 6 million Americans go online for medical advice on a typical day. That, it added, means "more people go online for medical advice on any given day than actually visit health professionals, according to figures provided by the American Medical Association."
The Pew group also found that Web health "seekers" often use search suggestions from friends, search with others, or ask people they consider knowledgeable searchers to help them find health information online. They report being satisfied with their searches, and the few who discuss their findings with physicians state that they agreed that what they had learned was correct. The Pew researchers readily admit that the health seekers may not have been as successful in gaining correct knowledge as they believe. And, in fact, an experimental study by Stanford and colleagues concluded that consumers make judgments about health site credibility in ways that are quite different than what medical professionals consider appropriate.
Date Posted: 18 January 2008