Pew study finds Americans apply more skepticism to health Web sites

Wednesday, May 22nd 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ Nearly two in three U.S. Internet users go online for health information, and many may not be applying a healthy enough dose of skepticism to the advice they find, a new study shows.

The Pew Internet & American Life Project, in a study released Wednesday, found that only a quarter of Americans who seek health information online always follow recommended procedures for checking its source and timeliness. Another quarter did so most of the time, while half did so only sometimes, hardly ever or never.

Eighteen percent of those surveyed said they had used the Internet to diagnose or treat a medical condition without consulting a doctor.

``A lot of people are going back to their doctors when they have questions or checking with other authoritative sources,'' said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew project. ``There's no evidence people are doing completely whacky self-diagnoses.''

The Medical Library Association, a nonprofit educational organization, recommends Internet users check who sponsors the Web site, when the information was last updated and whether the information is fact or opinion. In addition, users should visit several sites and consult with medical professionals, according to the California HealthCare Foundation.

The Pew study found that 62 percent of Internet users, or 73 million Americans, have gone online for health information. About 6 million use it on a given day _ more than those who visit health professionals.

Most Internet users who seek health information look for information about a particular illness or condition, the study found. Other frequent searches involve information about nutrition, weight control and prescription drugs.

Most users use a search engine or portal to find medical Web sites, which can lead to questionable sites.

``How do you know what's an ad for a product? How do you know who's even providing the information?'' said Vicky Rideout, a vice president at the nonprofit health group Kaiser Family Foundation. ``The best information is often not in the first 10 results returned.''

The better approach, she said, is to start with a site recommended by a doctor or other trusted source.

``I think people have more skepticism in theory, ... but in practice the Internet is rapidly becoming one of the most common sources of health information,'' Rideout said. ``So while they may say they don't trust it as much, they are relying on it.''

The Pew report notes that health care seekers often apply common sense rather than specific techniques when evaluating sites. For example, if the same information appears on multiple sites, the user will consider it trustworthy.

But the report also notes that sites often pool resources, so that the same piece of information can appear at multiple sites, leading users to mistakenly believe that it comes from multiple sources.

The study was primarily based on telephone interviews with 500 online health seekers age 18 and older conducted June 19 to Aug. 6, 2001. The survey has an error margin of plus or minus 4 percent.