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The hunt for accurate health information online


Health is without doubt one of the most popular topics searched for when people go online.  Indeed, a UK study suggested that nearly half of all searchers in 2013 were health related.  It’s perhaps no surprise therefore that Google began trialling a tele-medicine service for people tapping in health related queries last year.

Whilst this general empowerment of patients is probably a good thing, it isn’t without risks.  Indeed, a campaign was launched late last year in Belgium to stop people asking Dr Google about their symptoms and to contact professionals instead.

Whilst I sympathize with their concerns, I’m not sure their ire is aimed in the right place.  People aren’t going to stop Googling their condition to try and get as much information as possible, so it would seem the best bet is to try and ensure what they find is as reputable and accurate as can be.

You also have to factor in the rise of the social web, be that the various social networks out there or the hugely popular discussion forums online.  The likes of MumsNet are undoubtedly hugely influential, yet are often home to incredibly bad advice.

As searching for health online has become more popular, there have been a number of projects aiming to highlight reputable sources.  The Information Standard for instance is a NHS run project aiming to ‘kitemark’ reputable sources of content, but it doesn’t extend very far online yet, with just 250 websites covered.

One site that does is Geneva based Health on the Net who aim to provide a reputation score for sites with quality information.  They’re slightly more wide reaching than The Information Standard, with 5,000 sites included.

I suspect that until now you’ve remained blissfully unaware of these services however, and they don’t show up anywhere in the Google search results, and the badges provided by these services probably aren’t noticed by the majority of users.

Suffice to say, Google do take reputation into account already when ranking sites, but I suspect the only real solution is to take this a step further, maybe including the seal of approval from sites like the two above in their algorithm.

Of course, that isn’t to poo poo the services offered by the less reliable sources of information online.  The various health communities for instance often provide the kind of support and personal advice that no staid and static information service can begin to offer.

Maybe the real answer therefore is to endeavor to educate patients every step of the way, be that when they search online, engage with a professional or converse with online communities, so that they became as wise and informed as possible, and therefore in a position to more accurately sort the wheat from the chaff themselves.

Whilst doctors and professionals often seem only too happy to bury their heads in the sand over this matter, they hold a central role in educating patients on this matter, both by understanding where they are currently locating their information, and informing them of accurate alternatives.

Hopefully by acting collaboratively and taking a systemic approach to the provision of good information the situation will slowly improve, and patients can harvest top notch information whenever they inevitably go online in search of answers.

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