UF study finds quality of health-related Internet searches varies

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Using popular Internet search engines to seek out health-related information can be beneficial, but the level of quality across different health topics areas varies a recent University of Florida study shows.

A joint study involving UF’s College of Public Health and Health Professions and the Warrington College of Business Administration found that information from searches related to diagnosis and treatment of physical disease or injury are of higher quality than those related to preventive health and social health issues.

“Based on these results, health consumers and patients may be confident that they can find some high-quality health information when using a search engine,” said co-researcher Christopher A. Harle, an Assistant Professor in the College of Public Health and Health Professions. “However, consumers and patients may also consider that searching for some health topics, such as nutrition or fitness, may result in more information that is potentially lower quality.”

The use of the Internet and search engines to research health-related topics has become commonplace. The researchers note that “61 percent of U.S. adults seek health information online, and six out of 10 of this group report that their most recent search influenced their health-related decisions.” The use of search engines as a starting point for their online research is also sizable evidenced by the fact that “65 percent of people who obtain health information online begin inquiry through search engines …”

The researchers emphasize not only the use of search engines, but the way search engines rank the results. Because online users tend to gravitate to results listed on the first page of a search, consumers may be more likely to research erroneous information if search engines rank lower-quality web sites higher.

Warrington Ph.D. Candidate Brent Kitchens cautions that some health information found online could be misleading.

Warrington Ph.D. Candidate Brent Kitchens cautions that some health information found online could be misleading.

“Inaccurate or misleading results could lead people to ignore important symptoms and delay or even refuse recommended health care,” said Brent Kitchens, a Ph.D. Candidate in Warrington’s Department of Information Systems and Operations Management. “Low-quality results could also lead people to seek unnecessary health care or implement unproven or potentially harmful at-home treatments.”

Although the study found that the bulk of health-related information returned by popular search engines is of 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 health care and government organizations “place an increased emphasis on disseminating additional high quality information in these lower quality areas.”

“Based on these results, health care providers may feel more confident that patients can find good health information on the Internet,” said Harle. “So, rather than recommending patients avoid Internet searches for health information, providers may consider helping patients develop good strategies for recognizing high-quality information over questionable quality information.”

Shengli Li, an Assistant Professor at Xi’an Jiaotong University in China who was a Ph.D. Candidate in Information Systems and Operations Management at UF while conducting this research, was the third member of the research team. The study, “Quality of health-related online search results,” appeared in the January issue of Decision Support Systems.