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Online Medical Advice Can Lead You Astray : Discovery News

A systematic look at which sites come up during medical searches finds that 20 percent of them are commercially sponsored and generally unreliable.

THE GIST

Proceed with caution when you go online to look up medical symptoms, says new research.

In searches about sports injuries, nearly half of the top results come from companies that may be trying to sell you something.

Health websites run by nonprofit and educational organizations are usually better than commercial sites.

As soon as something hurts, it's tempting to turn to the Internet and look up your symptoms. At least 20 percent of the time, suggests a new study, your search will lead you astray.

The study, which focused on sports injuries like tennis elbow and knee ligament tears, points out the widespread dangers of diagnosing yourself on the web for all sorts of medical conditions. Following bad medical advice can be harmful for patients and a pain for doctors who have to spend time correcting misinformation before settling on the best treatment plan.

"Sometimes, it's a good thing for patients to take an active role in their health issues," said Jim Starman, an orthopedic resident at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. "Sometimes, it creates more problems than it solves."

Starman and colleagues noticed that many of their patients were coming in with misinformed ideas about how best to treat their problems. For example, they might request a certain medical device that, according to scientific evidence, was not the best device for them. Most of the time, their ideas had come from the Internet.

To gauge the problem's prevalence, the researchers searched Yahoo and Google for 10 common sports medicine diagnoses, including anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears, rotator cuff tears and meniscal tears. They took the top 10 results from both search engines. Then, they had three independent reviewers evaluate the sites for accuracy.

Results, published in the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery, revealed a huge amount of variability in the quality of sites that turned up, especially among academic and commercial sites. Nearly half of the top-10 sites were commercial.

Some of the commercial sites, including eMedicine and WebMD, were surprisingly good, Starman said. More often, though, commercial sites were sponsored by companies trying to sell products for diagnosing or treating the condition. Those were less trustworthy -- usually promoting their products as the best option without any evidence to support their claims. A full 20 percent of all results fell into this category.

In general, the sites of nonprofit and educational organizations scored the highest. But even then, it can be hard to tell whether a site is inaccurate, incomplete or outdated, said Gary Schwitzer, publisher of HealthNewsReview.org, a site that monitors the media for inaccurate health information. In the fast-paced world of health care, following guidelines that are even just five years old can be dangerous.

"The democratization and access to information that the web allows is viewed as a good thing, but there is, on the other hand, so much disease-mongering," Schwitzer said. "So, the spectrum is very clearly one of strong benefits at one end and strong potential harms at the other."

As a consumer, there are a few things you can do to weigh the value of health sites you surf to. A good place to start your search is with the Medical Library Association's guidelines to safe health surfing. The site offers lists of good sources, which include Cancer.gov, Kidshealth, MayoClinic.com, and MEDLINEplus.

When you arrive at a health site, look for certification from the Health on the Net Foundation, an organization that evaluates health information online. The new study found that sites with the HON seal were much more accurate and up to date than were sites without it. The seal is usually placed at the bottom of the page.

As you browse, you should make sure a site is clear about where its information came from and when it was updated, Schwitzer said. And beware of any site offering advice as opposed to information.

"One size does not fit all for any of us in health care," he said. "A good source leads not so much with how much we know, but is almost as quick to tell you what the unknowns and uncertainties are. We're talking about a science here. Uncertainty is rampant in health care."