Healthcare News & Insights

Studies: Patients find inaccurate medical advice online

More patients are turning to the Internet for answers to their medical questions. But not everything they find is accurate, according to some recent studies. 

Thanks to the wealth of information out there and patients’ desire to take greater charge of their own health, more people are using the Internet to search for health information, according to a recent survey from Wolters Kluwer — and most of them put a high level of trust in what they find.

Among the survey respondents, 30% “always” or “frequently” turn to the Internet for answers to medical questions. And out of those people, 65% trust that information, and 63% say they’ve never misdiagnosed themselves using info they found online.

However, other recent studies have cast some doubt on the accuracy of the medical information that’s available online. For example, a recent study published in the July issue of the Journal of Pediatrics pinpointed some problems with infant sleep safety recommendations that can be found through search engines.

For the study, researchers conducted Google searches for 13 different phrases related to infant sleep safety and analyzed 1,300 web sites that appeared in the results.

Many of the sites included information that was inaccurate or irrelevant. In fact, fewer than half (43%) contained information that matches expert recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics. The pages that didn’t meet those standards included popular sites such as eHow.com and About.com. Many retail sites, blogs and personal websites also contained inaccurate information, according to researchers.

In addition to the amount of problematic medical advice that exists on the Internet, patients may also not have the skills to distinguish between good and bad information — especially people in less tech-savvy demographic groups. For example, older patients are more likely than others to be overwhelmed by the amount information available and distracted by unrelated information, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

Also, people in all age groups tend to gravitate toward sites that express views they already hold and are likely to stop researching once they find a site that suits them.

Having patients searching for more health information online is a good thing for doctors. It means patients care about their health, and will be more knowledgeable about their conditions — as long as they research properly.

Doctors can help point their patients in the right direction by recommending specific sites or offering tips on how to find accurate and unbiased information. For example, government sites and sites for medical organizations (i.e., those ending in “.gov” or “.org”) tend to have the best information.

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