The consequences of poor quality health information can be serious

Somehow I missed this report Online Health: Untangling the Web, part of the BUPA Health Pulse survey, when it came out earlier this year. I am glad to have found it now because it represents a truly global view of how individuals are using the Internet with respect to their health. The study was funded by BUPA (still not clear what they do but seems like they sell health insurance and run nursing homes) and conducted by the London School of Economics. This is a powerful study in that  over 12,000 individuals in 12 countries were surveyed (Australia, Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Mexico, Russia, Spain, the UK and the USA) to uncover attitudes and perceptions towards aging, chronic diseases and health and well being. One of the most important points made in this report is that access to health information is not a universal good. As more data, articles, blogs, social networks, videos and the like proliferate around health, whether on the Web or via mobile, it becomes increasingly hard for most lay people to discern what is credible and what is not. This report asserts that very few people check the quality of the information they are using - fewer than one in four.

“Providing more and better information about health may help empower individuals, but it is a challenge to ensure that online health information is of high quality and can be trusted. Not only is there an ever increasing amount of information available, some of which may be inaccurate and out of date, it can also be difficult to identify the source of website content and if there is a link to commercial activity. The consequences of poor quality information can be serious, as it may lead to needless worry, unnecessary consultations, over-use of health services and/or a delay in appropriate diagnosis.”

Other important points:

  • Access to information is not universal. There are huge disparities in access to the Internet around the world: in most high income countries, 60% of or more of the population has access (although not all choose to engage); in emerging economies like Mexico, Brazil and Russia, less than 40% typically have access; in India, the figure is 7%.
  • Of those with Internet access, there is strong demand for health and medical information. In every country represented in the survey, at least 60% of individuals search for information on drugs, general health issues or specific conditions. Respondents in all five emerging market countries – Brazil, China, India, Mexico and Russia – were among the most avid health information seekers (using the Internet Often according to the survey, graph to the left). One possible explanation could be the high cost of medical care in these regions.
  • What are people searching for? Primarily drug info (68%) followed by questions around what ails them (self-diagnosis at 46%). This is followed by reading about other patients' experiences (39%), information on hospitals/clinics (38%) and information on doctors (25%).
  • There have been few economic analyses of the potential savings that  improved access to quality health information can bring. One exception is a study conducted by NHS Choices in the UK, a government-run health portal. (I think the NHS content and tools are really good). They reported savings of£44 million as a result of a decrease in the use of GP consultations by 37 per cent of the website’s users.

There is no question that access to health and medical information is important. The big issue going forward will be how we determine quality and disseminate that assessment to health content seekers. As noted in the report, "The consequences of poor quality health information can be serious."