Why some consumers turn away from a health information site

New York City,NY (05-23-2002)

From The Wall Street Journal
By Laura Landro

There are more tools than ever before to help evaluate the quality of Internet health data, from a "seal of approval" program for health sites to Web-searching guidelines from advocacy groups such as the National Association of Breast Cancer Organizations and the AARP. Still, a surprising number of consumers still aren't taking the time or making the effort to vet the data they find online, according to "Vital Decisions," a new survey by the nonprofit Pew Charitable Trust's Internet and American Life Project.

Americans Need to Be More Skeptical About Health Info Online, Study Says

Even though about six million people go online for medical advice in a typical day -- more than actually visit health professionals -- only about one-quarter follow recommended guidelines for thoroughly checking the source and timeliness of information or are vigilant about verifying the information's accuracy. Half the survey respondents said they "only sometimes," "hardly ever" or "never" check the source or date of the information they read online -- and most seem inclined to believe whatever they find. But the Journal of the American Medical Association this week said 70% of recent research studies on the quality of health information on the Web found "significant problems" with the health content they evaluated.

To help consumers do better, Pew asked the Medical Library Association
(www.mlanet.org) to provide a user's guide to finding information, as
well as a list of the top 10 consumer sites (top picks include the Mayo Clinic site and Medem, a joint venture of the leading medical societies.) MLA President Carol Jenkins says her group is now looking at ways it can better educate consumers on how to translate medical literature and understand how clinical-trial research is analyzed.

"As health information professionals, we want to make sure that anyone
who needs health information knows how to evaluate it," says Ms. Jenkins.

Among the MLA's guidelines: Make sure any site with a dot-com address
discloses the sponsor, check the date that the information was last updated or revised, and make sure it can be verified by a primary source such as medical studies, abstracts, or links to other Web pages. For those confused by medical terms, the MLA site includes a "Medspeak" glossary.

Another program consumers can use to evaluate a Web site's overall credibility is the new accreditation program launched last year by the American Accreditation HealthCare Commission, which goes by the acronym URAC. The nonprofit group, which accredits managed-care companies, has awarded a "seal of approval" to 16 health Web sites. Approved sites have to pass muster on URAC's standards for content, financial disclosure and privacy, and must offer a mechanism for consumers to make complaints. Some critics don't feel URAC should have any special authority to rate sites and don't want to pay the fees required to cover the costs of URAC's review. But the program is expanding; two dozen more health sites are undergoing the accreditation process now. Last month, Medlineplus.gov (www.medlineplus.gov), the consumer Web site of the National Library of Medicine, was the first government-sponsored site to seek and win
accreditation. (A list of accredited sites is on the urac.org site (www.urac.org), along with detailed descriptions of what Web sites have to do to get the seal.)

Whether consumers will rely on the seal is still unclear. The Pew study says just 19% of Internet users describe a seal of approval as "very important" when it comes to deciding whether to visit a site. By contrast, 80% said it is "very important" that a site be easy to navigate. "E-patients are often in a hurry and want good information, fast," says Susannah Fox, Pew's director of research. Consumers are interested in such accreditation programs, she adds, "but seals of approval are not the Holy Grail for health Web sites."

Guy D'Andrea, senior vice president of URAC, notes that the program is
only six months old, and says Pew's study is consistent with his group's findings that a sizeable group of "core" health consumers place a high value on seals of approval. Of greater concern, he adds, is that consumers tend to go first to general search engines rather than specific medical sites to start looking for health information -- and research generally shows search engines "aren't doing a great job" of guiding consumers to the most reliable data.

URAC recently reached an agreement with a small, health-focused search
engine (www.vitalseek.com) that will allow searches to filter out information from sites not accredited by URAC. Vitalseek, which pitches itself as a "health concierge" to help people sort through medical information online, already allows consumers to personalize their searches by using various filters. For example, in looking for information on children's asthma, a user can ask that results be limited to sites that have a higher degree of privacy protections, are not commercially sponsored, adhere to traditional rather than alternative medical practice and are at a more moderate reading level.

The Pew study did include some encouraging data about online "health
seekers." While 68% said their latest search for information affected a decision related to their own or a loved one's care, nearly three-quarters have at some point rejected information during a health search, either because a site was too commercial, too unprofessional, or clearly not reliable. And despite concern in the medical establishment that patients are self-diagnosing and self-medicating with information they find online, Pew found, only one in five patients have done so without consulting their doctor.

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