Searching for health information online has become almost a reflex for anyone with access to a computer. Worried about that pain in your left side? Concerned about drug interactions? Need a dentist or a dermatologist? You probably consult Dr. Google.
But JAMA Internal Medicine has a new commentary article that questions the accuracy of online information about one of the biggest decisions you might have to make: picking a hospital.
Researchers Alex John London of Carnegie Mellon University and Yael Schenker of the University of Pittsburgh took a look at a study by Mariah Kincaid and other researchers about online ads for transaortic valve replacement, or TAVR, a minimally invasive procedure for treating the narrowing of the aortic valve that is common in older adults, particularly men. The study reviewed the online advertisements of all 317 U.S. hospitals that offer TAVR and found that all of them cited the benefits of the procedure — but only one-fourth acknowledged that it had any risk. And fewer than 5 percent of the hospitals quantified the risks in a way that would be useful to consumers.
Many of the ads, the researchers noted, are very informational — with “graphs, diagrams, statistics and physician testimonials” — and therefore not identifiable to patients as promotional material.
This kind of “incomplete and imbalanced information” is particularly dangerous, they note, because of its deceptively professional appearance: “Although consumers who are bombarded by television commercials may be aware that they are viewing an advertisement, hospital websites often have the appearance of an education portal.”
The authors acknowledge that many clinicians encourage patients to look for information online as a way of participating in their own health care. But they say the “crowded landscape of biased information” may actually mislead consumers — and they say that closer scrutiny of hospital Web sites might give reason to support stricter advertising regulations.