Researchers study health web sites

April 17, 2009 11:11:02 AM PDT
Houston researchers made big news this week with their study on the accuracy of health web sites. They found sites that discussed alternative medicine were 15 times more likely to have inaccuracies than other websites.

"I wanted to know how to handle the chemo," said cancer survivor Sherry Snook.

Sherry had lots of questions especially after being diagnosed with breast cancer four times.

"The last time I was diagnosed with stage 3 cancer and they told me I should go home and talk to my husband and prepare my family," she said.

Instead, this mother of fourwent to the Internet, to learn about her cancer. Sometimes she ran into odd advice.

"Oh, if you eat lots of bananas and I thought --,'What does bananas have to do with breast cancer,'"said Sherry.

How accurate are health websites? Researchers at UT Houston Med School and M.D. Anderson Cancer center took breast cancer and checked 343 websites. One in 20 contained serious inaccuracies.

"That was pretty good news for healthcare consumers searching online that most of the information on breast cancer is likely to be accurate," said Dr. Elmer Bernstam with UT Houston Medical School.

But if the website mentioned complementary or alternative medicine it was 15 times more likely to have false information.

This is why it matters -- if you get inaccurate health information from a website it could mean big problems, especially if you're facing a life or death decision.

"This is where I would start if I were a consumer," said Dr. Bernstam.

He likes Medline plus, a health site using reputable experts. If you use a search engine, check to see if the website is sponsored and even if a site is good today. That doesn't mean it stays accurate.

"By the time you may access it, it may be a completely different website it might not exist," said Dr. Bernstam.

The study found even sites that listed authors, and updated information didn't insure accuracy. His advice:

"Go to websites produced by trusted authorities such as the national institutes of health," said Dr. Bernstam.

Sherry did and information, plus good treatment saved her life.

"I am now three years out cancer free, and counting," said Sherry.

More tips: Look for an 'about us' page. Federal health agencies like the National Cancer Institute are good sites and so are non-profits like the American Heart Association.

See if it has an editorial board and if so, are medical experts listed. Finally, compare that information to other medical websites.

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Christi Myers is ABC13's Healthcheck reporter


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