Surfing for scoliosis: the quality of information available on the Internet

Sameer Mathur, Nael Shanti, Mario Brkaric, Vivek Sood, Justin Kubeck, Carl Paulino, Andrew A Merola
Spine 2005 December 1, 30 (23): 2695-700

STUDY DESIGN: A cross section of Web sites accessible to the general public was surveyed.

OBJECTIVE: To evaluate the quality and accuracy of information on scoliosis that a patient might access on the Internet.

SUMMARY OF BACKGROUND DATA: The Internet is a rapidly expanding communications network with an estimated 765 million users worldwide by the year 2005. Medical information is one of the most common sources of inquires on the Web. More than 100 million Americans accessed the Internet for medical information in the year 2000. Undoubtedly, the use of the Internet for patient information needs will continue to expand as Internet access becomes more readily available. This expansion combined with the Internet's poorly regulated format can lead to problems in the quality of information available. Since the Internet operates on a global scale, implementing and enforcing standards have been difficult. The largely uncontrolled information can potentially negatively influence consumer health outcomes.

METHODS: To identify potential sites, five search engines were selected and the word "scoliosis" was entered into each search engine. A total of 50 Web sites were chosen for review. Each Web site was evaluated according to the type of Web site, quality content, and informational accuracy by three board-certified academic orthopedic surgeons, fellowship trained in spinal surgery, who each has been in practice for a minimum of 8 years. Each Web site was categorized as academic, commercial, physician, nonphysician health professional, and unidentified. In addition, each Web site was evaluated according to scoliosis-specific content using a point value system of 32 disease-specific key words pertinent to the care of scoliosis on an ordinal scale. A list of these words is given. Point values were given for the use of key words related to disease summary, classifications, treatment options, and complications. The accuracy of the individual Web site was evaluated by each spine surgeon using a scale of 1 to 4. A score of 1 represents that the examiner agreed with less than 25% of the information while a score of 4 represents greater than 75% agreement.

RESULTS: Of the total 50 Web sites evaluated, 44% were academic, 18% were physician based, 16% were commercial, 12% were unidentified, and 10% were nonphysician health professionals. The quality content score (maximum, 32 points) for academic sites was 12.6 +/- 3.8, physician sites 11.3 +/- 4.0, commercial sites 11 +/- 4.2, unidentified 7.6 +/- 3.9, and nonphysician health professional site 7.0 +/- 1.8. The accuracy score (maximum, 12 points) was 6.6 +/- 2.4 for academic sites, 6.3 +/- 3.0 for physician-professional sites, 6.0 +/- 2.7 for unidentified sites, 5.5 +/- 3.8 for nonphysician professional sites, and 5.0 +/- 1.5 for commercial Web sites. The academic Web sites had the highest mean scores in both quality and accuracy content scores.

CONCLUSION: The information about scoliosis on the Internet is of limited quality and poor information value. Although the majority of the Web sites were academic, the content quality and accuracy scores were still poor. The lowest scoring Web sites were the nonphysician professionals and the unidentified sites, which were often message boards. Overall, the highest scoring Web site related to both quality and accuracy of information was This Web site was designed by the Scoliosis Research Society. The public and the medical communities need to be aware of these existing limitations of the Internet. Based on our review, the physician must assume primary responsibility of educating and counseling their patients.

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