Searchers Rarely Vet Online Health Sources

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Can there be an online placebo effect, or is the health information online just really that good? That could be investigated, but it seems the average online health information seeker wouldn’t go so far as to find out.

Although 80 percent of American Internet users (113 million adults) have searched for one of Pew Internet’s seventeen health topics, nearly the same number (75%) trust the information they find online without noting the source or checking the date of the information.

Repeat: Three-quarters of those seeking health information online check the source and date of health information “only sometimes,” “hardly ever,” or “never.” 100 million people almost completely trust the health information they find online.

Surprisingly, only three percent report bad outcomes from the information, and nearly a third (31%) say they know someone who was helped significantly by information they found online.

Of course, Penn and Teller will tell you that the majority of the people at the mall can be fooled into believing that snail slime is good for the skin. But that’s just people at the mall, who perhaps have country roots reminding them that Robitussin is no match for a 40-year-old bottle of homemade whiskey and rock candy; those same ones who have a vague recollection of their grandfather shoving a wad of recently chewed tobacco into a wound as anesthesia.

Interest in alternative medicine though, according to Pew, has declined over the past couple of years, as users turn back to more accepted medical practices. Alternative treatments and medicine searches peaked in 2004, with 30 percent of respondents saying they had searched for it. That dropped to 27 percent in August 2006.

Users are focusing mostly on specific diseases or medical problems (64%), certain medical treatments or procedures (51%), and diet and nutrition (49%). Interestingly, it seems research on a particular doctor or hospital has been steadily on the rise, increasing from 21 percent in 2002 to 29 percent in 2006.

Ten million Americans are searching for health information on a daily basis, placing health sites in the same league as bill-paying, blog-reading, and directory information. Most of them (66%) begin their research with a search engine. Hitwise reported recently that Health and Medical websites receive over 43 percent of their traffic from search.

Nearly three-quarters (72%) of health information seekers visit more two or more sites during their sessions, so at least they’re consulting several sources – especially since almost half of them (48%) are seeking information on behalf of a loved one.

More than half (53%) say online information had an impact on how they handle health issues; 58 percent say online information influenced a decision about how to treat an illness; 55 percent say online information changed their overall approach to maintaining their health.

The vast majority (74%) of respondents felt reassured by the information they found – so much so that over half (51%) were eager to spread the information around. But again, only a few of them really checked their sources. Fifteen percent “always” check the source and date. Only 10 percent said “most of the time.”

Pew blames health websites for the “diminished diligence” in checking sources and dates. The US Department of Health and Human Services reported that just four percent of popular websites disclose their sources. Just two percent said how the content is updated.

Because of sheep-like trust of online health information seekers, new types of sites and search services may find an important niche – a controlled virtual medical environment may one day prove more valuable than traditional search with paid inclusion, relevancy gaming, and the like.

Healthline.com, for example, is a walled garden of sorts for health information. In addition to articles on various health issues that were written by doctors, Healthline also searches only what are considered the top medical sites on the Web.

Though it may not be happening now, as the population gets more Net-research savvy, niche sites like Healthline will become valuable resources to help weed out potentially false or out of date information.


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