The quality of the information we find online depends largely on what we are searching for, finds a study published in January by Decision Support Systems. While you can find high-quality information on the diagnosis and treatment of physical diseases or injuries online, search results related to nutrition, fitness and preventive health vary widely in quality. And the actions we take (or don't take) as a result of the information we find can be hazardous.
According to the Pew Research Internet Project:
- More than 60 percent of American adults look for health information online.
- Of those people, 60 percent report that their most recent search influenced their health-related decisions.
- 77 percent of people seeking health information start with a general search engine like Google or Yahoo, as opposed to a health-specific website.
- Searchers are most likely to view results listed only on the first page.
People are also more likely to seek out health information when a famous person dies or receives a serious diagnosis – the "Steve Jobs Effect". This is not necessarily a bad thing, but health care decisions are best made in consultation with a doctor and take into account a person's personal risks and preferences. "Celebrity announcements or deaths related to cancer are a rare opportunity for public health advocates to explain the differences between cancers, and how to prevent or detect them, to a public that is otherwise not paying much attention to these details," said lead study author Jessica Gall Myrick.
Given the direction that mobile and online health information appears to be heading – in the more, not less, direction – people need guidance from unbiased sources. As Christopher Harle, assistant professor at the University of Florida College of Public Health and Health Professions, put it: "Rather than recommending patients avoid Internet searches for health information, [health care] providers may consider helping patients develop good strategies for recognizing high-quality information over questionable information."
With over 39 million Google results for "cold remedies," we need all the good research strategies we can get.