The quality of the information available on the Internet may depend on what is searched for, and the results could be hazardous to one’s health, according to a University of Florida study recently published in the journal Decision Support Systems.
The researchers discovered that Web searches related to the diagnosis and treatment of physical disease or injuries tend to yield higher-quality information than online searches for preventive health and social health information.
A search for the word “health” returned first-page results from well-respected healthcare providers, for example, while a search for “newborn vaccines” yielded hits for blogs and forums that discuss delaying or refusing medically recommended vaccinations. So when it comes to health information, search results may vary, the study found.
For the UF study, the researchers queried Google’s general search engine using more than 2,000 different health-related terms. To determine the quality of websites returned in the first page of search results, the researchers checked to see if the sites were certified for accuracy by the nonprofit Health on the Net Foundation or were included in Medline Plus, a consumer website run by the National Institutes of Health.
Although the study found that more than half of the websites returned by popular search engines are of a high quality, the researchers stress that more can be done to improve an online user’s experience. They suggest that existing online resources be examined for quality, and that healthcare and government organizations disseminate more high-quality information on topics where accurate information is lacking.
More than 60 percent of American adults look for health information online, and six out of 10 people in this group report that their most recent search influenced their health-related decisions, according to research from the Pew Research Center.
About 65 percent of people seeking health information use a search engine to start their inquiry, compared with one-quarter of Web users who begin their search at a health-related website. The ranking of search engine results is important, because users tend to gravitate to results listed on the first page of a search, UF researchers say. Consumers may be more likely to find erroneous information if search engines rank lower-quality websites higher.
“Based on these results, health consumers and patients may feel assured that they can find some high-quality health information when using a search engine,” study co-author Christopher A. Harle, an assistant professor of health services research, management and policy at the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions, said in a statement. “However, consumers and patients should know that searches for some health topics, such as nutrition or fitness, may result in more information that is potentially lower quality.”