Setting the public agenda for online health search: a white paper and action agenda

Liza Greenberg, Guy D'Andrea, Dan Lorence
Journal of Medical Internet Research 2004 June 8, 6 (2): e18

BACKGROUND: Searches for health information are among the most common reasons that consumers use the Internet. Both consumers and quality experts have raised concerns about the quality of information on the Web and the ability of consumers to find accurate information that meets their needs.

OBJECTIVE: To produce a national stakeholder-driven agenda for research, technical improvements, and education that will improve the results of consumer searches for health information on the Internet.

METHODS: URAC, a national accreditation organization, and Consumer WebWatch (CWW), a project of Consumers Union (a consumer advocacy organization), conducted a review of factors influencing the results of online health searches. The organizations convened two stakeholder groups of consumers, quality experts, search engine experts, researchers, health-care providers, informatics specialists, and others. Meeting participants reviewed existing information and developed recommendations for improving the results of online consumer searches for health information. Participants were not asked to vote on or endorse the recommendations. Our working definition of a quality Web site was one that contained accurate, reliable, and complete information.

RESULTS: The Internet has greatly improved access to health information for consumers. There is great variation in how consumers seek information via the Internet, and in how successful they are in searching for health information. Further, there is variation among Web sites, both in quality and accessibility. Many Web site features affect the capability of search engines to find and index them.

CONCLUSIONS: Research is needed to define quality elements of Web sites that could be retrieved by search engines and understand how to meet the needs of different types of searchers. Technological research should seek to develop more sophisticated approaches for tagging information, and to develop searches that "learn" from consumer behavior. Finally, education initiatives are needed to help consumers search more effectively and to help them critically evaluate the information they find.


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