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Doctors Warn Against Relying Too Much On Google

Chances are good that you’ve searched for health-related information via Google, Yahoo, Bing, or some of the other health-specific portals. Both Google and Bing continue to expand the amount — and quality — of content they show in response to our health searches. But, based on a recent study, the medical industry says we should be cautious when relying on the Internet for health-related information.

The study, published in the July 2010 issue of the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery, examined the top ten search results on Google and Yahoo for ten common sports medicine diagnoses — phrases like “Anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tear,” “Rotator cuff tear,” and “Tennis elbow” — and analyzed the type of pages/sites that ranked highly and the accuracy/completeness of the information.

In terms of content, Dr. Karunakar says, nonprofit sites scored the highest, then academic sites (including medical journal sites), and then certain non-sales-oriented commercial sites (such as WebMD and eMedicine). The least accurate information sources were newspaper articles and personal web sites. Commercial sites with a financial interest in the diagnosis, such as those sponsored by companies selling a drug or treatment device, were very common but frequently incomplete.

“About 20 percent of the sites that turned up in the top ten results were sponsored sites,” Dr. Karunakar says. “These site owners are motivated to promote their product, so the information found there may be biased. We also found that these sites rarely mentioned the risks or complications associated with treatment as they are trying to represent their product in the best possible light.”

The study warns consumers and health professionals about relying on commercial health sites, except for the “most reputable sites” like WebMD and eMedicine.

The debate over accuracy and trustworthiness of health information found via search isn’t new. Microsoft has written about “cyberchondria” — how online health information sometimes makes us feel worse. Dilbert creator Scott Adams took a different stance in late 2008, writing about how Google helped him find treatment for a speech defect. There’s little doubt the debate will continue.

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