STUDY highlights flaws in health sites

Tuesday, May 22nd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CHICAGO (AP) _ Consumer-oriented health information on the Internet is often difficult to access, hard to understand and incomplete, according to a doctors' analysis of 25 Web sites.

The RAND research institution analysis involved a panel of 34 physicians who evaluated English- and Spanish-language sites from July to December last year.

The panel looked at four common medical conditions _ breast cancer, childhood asthma, depression and obesity _ and how well the Web sites covered topics the doctors believed consumers should know.

About 25 percent of the topics were not covered at all by the English-language sites and 53 percent were not covered by the Spanish-language sites.

For example, less than half of the Spanish-language materials explained that mastectomy and lumpectomy plus radiation are equivalent treatments for early breast cancer. Only a few of the sites in either language indicated that a patient with a persistent breast mass and negative mammogram usually needs further evaluation.

Overall, the accuracy of the information was generally good. Seemingly contradictory information within a single site was common among English sites. RAND's Dr. Gretchen Berland, who led the study, said the apparent contradictions often involved presenting the same information in different ways rather than blatant errors.

At least a 10th-grade reading level was required to understand material on all the English sites and half were written at the college level. A ninth-grade level was needed for most of the Spanish sites.

The analysis, published in Wednesday's Journal of the American Medical Association, noted that surveys have shown that nearly 100 million Americans use the Internet to find health information and 70 percent of them say what they find influences their treatment decisions.

``If people are relying on the Internet to make treatment decisions, including whether to seek care, deficiencies in information could negatively influence consumer decisions,'' the researchers said.

The study was funded by California HealthCare Foundation, a private philanthropic group based in Oakland.

Dr. Mark Smith, the group's president, said the study shows the need for patients to discuss health information they find online with their doctors. They ``should not take this stuff as gospel,'' Smith said.

Two Web sites performed better than average for breast cancer and depression information respectively: the University of Pennsylvania Cancer Center's Oncolink ( and the National Institute of Mental Health ( None performed better than average for the other two conditions.

None of the evaluating physicians had any ties to health Web sites nor owned stock in any e-health company, Berland said.

The researchers said the Internet has the potential to be a powerful source of health information, and they said their findings could help Web site operators make improvements.

Jennifer Moore, vice president of content at one of the sites evaluated,, said such studies ``help us to focus on those areas that may require a different approach.''

Moore said a new set of writing guidelines was recently established for her site ``to ensure that all health information is presented clearly and in a consumer-friendly manner geared toward the general public.''