Internet can be quick link to bad health information
July 29, 1999
Web posted at: 4:57 p.m. EDT (2057 GMT)
(CNN) -- Using the Internet to look up health information may be fast and easy. But according to a new study, it may also lead you to inaccurate, misleading or unproven advice.
Researchers at the University of Michigan Health System still recommend using the Internet for health information but said users should be careful about the sites they choose.
The research team started with an Internet search for information on a single type of cancer. They said that nearly half the pages they found had information that apparently had not been scientifically validated. About 6 percent of those pages had wrong information, and others were misleading.
The search also turned up hundreds of dead ends, bad links and pages that had no medical information even though they were found in a search.
In an article in the August issue of the journal Cancer, the researchers said they used four popular Internet search engines to look up information about Ewing's sarcoma, a rare and often fatal bone cancer that strikes mostly children and teens.
Two researchers acting independently reviewed information from 400 of the more than 27,000 Web pages found in the search. Fewer than half the pages contained medical information about Ewing's sarcoma. Of those that did, about 60 percent had information that had been through the peer-review process -- review by medical colleagues who don't have a stake in the research.
The other 40 percent of the pages had data that had not been reviewed or didn't list the source of the information.
The researchers said their study should not be viewed as a blanket condemnation of health information on the Internet. Rather, they said doctors should point their patients to reliable Web sites.
"What we need to do is educate health care consumers who are accessing the Internet with an ability to assess the information they find," said the study's lead author, Dr. J. Sybil Biermann.
Biermann said the Internet is becoming a powerful tool in medicine, but like any tool, it must be used with care. She encourages patients to do research on the Web. But she said health professionals must improve the quality of available information and help patients find it.
Biermann said she got the idea for the study after noticing two or three years ago that patients were starting to show up for appointments lugging reams of Internet search results. She said the patients were using the information to make decisions about their health care and to question her about their treatment.
"I realized this was changing the physician-patient relationship in a major way," she said.
Biermann said that in her personal experience, the more serious and chronic the condition, the more likely people are to turn to the Internet.
Biermann said doctors and patients need to talk about what the patients find.
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