Rampant Malpractice Among Health Searchers

Although most internet users turn to general-purpose search engines to find health related information, the majority don’t bother to check the source and date of the information they find, according to a new study from the Pew Internet Project.

Seventy-five percent of health searchers say they check the source and date of the information they find using search engines “only sometimes,” “hardly ever,” or “never.” A comparatively small group (15%) say they “always” check the source and date of the health information they find online, while another 10% say they do “most of the time.”

The report, one of many released in an ongoing series by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, is a follow-up to a similar survey performed in 2001. Surprisingly, the percentages of people saying they check for date and source has decreased since 2001.

The report suggests that one potential reason for this lack of due-diligence lies with the health information sites themselves: A recent study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that fewer than 2% of popular health sites display the source and date of the information on their pages.

Even so, this lack of scrutiny suggests that many people are not being careful about questioning the credibility or reliability of the health related information they’re finding online, and could in fact be relying on incorrect or even potentially dangerous sources.

The findings echo those presented in another Pew report from last year, where Pew found that most people said they were confident in their searching skills, yet didn’t really understand how search engines worked. I wrote about that study in Survey: Searchers are Confident, Satisfied & Clueless.

Results of the current health information seeker study were based on a telephone survey of American 2,928 adults, aged 18 and older. As it has done with previous surveys, Pew has extrapolated its findings to the entire population of internet users in the U.S. And searching for health information is a popular activity in America. And search engines are key tools for people looking for health information: Two-thirds of internet users began their last online health inquiry at a search engine while just 27% began at a health-related website.

Pew reports that eighty percent, or some 113 million American adults, have searched for information on at least one of seventeen health topics. But certain groups are more likely than others to search for health related information. These include women, internet users younger than 65, college graduates, those with more online experience, and those with broadband access at home.

And people aren’t looking just to cure what ails them. Nearly half of all users looking for health information are searching for someone else. Another 8% said they were both searching for someone else and to answer their own health questions.

Just 36% of health searchers say their last search was in relation to their own health or medical situation. And apparently they aren’t being spectacularly successful at satisfying their information needs. Only 53% of health seekers report that the most recent health information they’ve found actually had some kind of impact on how they take care of themselves or care for someone else.

Surprisingly, though, 74% of health seekers say they felt reassured that they could make appropriate health care decisions after their last search. A majority of health seekers said they felt confident to raise new questions with their doctor, relieved or comforted by the information they found online, or were eager to share their new knowledge with others.

But information overload is a problem for some. One-quarter of health seekers say they felt overwhelmed by the amount of information they found online during their last search. Others say they felt frustrated by the lack of information, confused by the information, or frightened by the serious or graphic nature of what they found online during their last health-related query.

The full 21 page PDF report, Online Health Search 2006, can be found on the Pew Internet & American Life Project web site.

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