Researchers compare effectiveness of health info from online communities, search engines

Now more than ever, patients with health concerns attempt to navigate online communities or search engines to find answers to their questions. Knowing who or what to trust, however, is not always easy.

In a study published recently in the Journal of Medical Internet Research (JMIR), researchers tried to bring some clarity to the situation. They found, in general, that online communities answered more questions for patients than search engines, but that search engines were the most effective in what were considered to be "value" questions.

For the study, the researchers--from Michigan State University, the University of Portland in Oregon and the University of California, San Diego--sifted through patients' questions and community responses from the WebMD online diabetes community, and compared them to the same questions asked to and answers given by Each of the questions was classified as either a "fact" question, a "policy" question or a "value" question.

"Community responses were more clinically relevant than their search result counterparts," the researchers said. "However, clinical validity varied, with search results being more clinically valid than community responses for fact and value questions, but community responses being more clinically valid than search results for policy questions. These observations show that answers from both sources contain clinically accurate information, which does not necessarily answer questions."

In February 2015, Google and the Mayo Clinic announced a partnership to enhance Web searchers by patients for health information. Trial research results published earlier this year in JMIR determined that many participating patients preferred finding information through a conversational agent-based process, wherein audiovisual information is combined with speech instead of text.

Research out of Australia published in late 2014 found that consumers prefer guidance from their caregivers to find health information online.

According to the authors of the more recent study, providers would be wise to guide their patients toward finding accurate information online.

To learn more:
- here's the JMIR study