A recent national survey reported that 60% of adults access health information online. Although the internet can be a helpful resource for many consumers, prior studies have suggested that the accessibility and accuracy of web-based health information are not always adequate. When patients can correctly identify risk factors and symptoms of potential medical emergencies, appropriate and timely medical care may be provided. Health information gathered from the internet may impact medical choices and outcomes.

Improvements of Medical Info on the Internet

In the November 2011 issue of Western Journal of Emergency Medicine, my colleagues and I published results from a study in which we sought to determine whether the completeness and accuracy of emergency medical information available online has improved over time. We evaluated medical content (descriptive information, completeness, and accuracy) on the top 15 healthcare information sites, as determined by internet traffic, for four common ED diagnoses: myocardial infarction, stroke, influenza, and febrile child.

Online Exclusive: Table of Most Accurate Medical Websites

According to our findings, the completeness and accuracy of online emergency medical information available to the general public has improved since 2002. Only two of 12 of the websites reviewed in 2002 boasted greater than 50% of aggregated medical information. In our study, 11 of 12 websites accomplished this feat. In addition, seven contained greater than 70% of aggregated medical information on the four common ED diagnoses we analyzed. None of the websites reviewed in 2008 contained questionable or dangerous information or recommendations, representing an improvement since 2002.

Importantly, our analysis did not find a significant correlation between credentialing and completeness of website or credentialing and medical accuracy. This echoes prior evaluations of accuracy for certified websites. Despite attempts by credentialing organizations to improve and standardize health information available online, an opportunity remains to standardize the certification process. Standardizing certification can hold websites accountable for providing accurate and reliable information to consumers.

Interpreting the Health Information Findings

Our study demonstrated that the quality of emergency medicine health information throughout the internet appears to be improving overall.  See table on the most accurate medical websites. However, there are still many websites that do not have the completeness and accuracy desired for common emergencies.

Physicians should acknowledge that many patients are acquiring health information for emergencies online. When appropriate, physicians should consider recommending certain websites to their patients should future emergencies arise. Despite the progress we observed in the quality of information available on the internet, it’s important to note that we didn’t assess the tools that some websites offered, such as risk calculators, and we didn’t look at content that was only available for people who paid for subscriptions to their site. It would be beneficial to evaluate the accuracy and completeness of health information for these aspects of the internet. It would also be helpful to review websites providing information for chronic conditions, such as seizure disorders or emphysema. Exploring and gaining a better understanding of patient safety issues and outcomes associated with access to health information online could also be of great help.