Michael Pollan’s answer to diet angst is to “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Is there an equivalent maxim for information angst? If not, does someone out there want to make one up? Because a new study published in Cancer argues that e-patients can take a common-sense approach to online health research and do just fine.
I was able to obtain a full-text copy of the report, so here are a few lines you won’t read in the press release:
Few consumers consider the quality of online health information as they conduct their web searches. In light of our findings, perhaps this is not a bad thing.
This finding goes along with what other researchers have found about Google being a “good enough” diagnostic tool. It also goes along with what Tom Ferguson always said: “e-patients believe that they can find the good stuff online.”
Speaking of Tom, the second sentence in the Cancer journal article cites a meme that has taken on a life of its own: “every day, more patients seek health information online than visit a physician.” The Pew Internet Project gets the citation, but that is a vintage DocTom data point that he fed to us while we were writing the report.
But wait! There’s more. This phrase stopped me for a moment: “information toxicity,” or the harm that comes to people if they follow bad advice found online which, according to the study’s authors “may be underreported in the published medical literature.” Do you think there’s a chance that the opposite of information toxicity is also underreported? What should that be called?
One possibility is to call it “information therapy,” so I emailed Josh Seidman, the executive director of the Center for Information Therapy to get his views on this study. He wrote back that his own research “corroborates their findings that proxy measures of information quality do not bear much relationship to the actual accuracy and comprehensiveness of Internet health information” (PDF). Josh also pointed out that “inaccuracy can be fairly limiting as a gold-standard information quality marker, which is part of why I sought to determine both accuracy and comprehensiveness (as did RAND).”
By citing RAND, Josh is pointing to the gold standard (or “Journal Article Zero” if you don’t love the premise that doctors know best) in the online information-quality debate: “Evaluation of English and Spanish Health Information on the Internet” (Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 285, No. 20, May 23 2001, pp. 2612-2621). I compare all other studies to it and would love to see it replicated in 2008 so we can find out if we’ve actually made progress, as this much less ambitious study suggests.