In the most recent Technology Quarterly from the Economist, offers a guardedly upbeat assessment of the state of consumer health information, in an article entitled Health 2.0. I apologize if the link is for subscribers only (I didn't check at the time I read it), but I value their opinion as trend validators.
Misinformation is another worry. On the internet, as the old saying goes, nobody knows you are a dog—or an idiot, notes Dan Keldsen of AIIM, a non-profit association based in Silver Spring, Maryland, which helps companies manage digital information. And too much health information can confuse people, says Monique Levy of Jupiter. But a survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project in Washington, DC, suggests that although user-generated information offers consumers more health options, the upside outweighs the risk, says Pew's Susannah Fox. Nearly one-third of the 100m Americans who have looked for health information online say that they or people they know have been significantly helped by what they found. In contrast, only 3% reported that online advice had caused serious harm.
A lot of user-generated health information is accurate. A panel of neurology specialists judged that only 6% of information posted in the epilepsy-support group of BrainTalk was factually wrong, according to a study published in 2004 in the British Medical Journal. And with enough people online, misinformation is often quickly corrected. Inaccurate posts on the website of the Association of Cancer Online Resources (ACOR), for example, will be pointed out within two hours, says Gilles Frydman, the founder of the association, based in New York.
As a rider on the Health 2.0 bandwagon, I bask in the Economist's praise, deservedly or not. But I also have done some empirical research of my own to back their opinion up.
I have been doing a lot of analysis of a data set Microsoft Research shared with my thesis advisers, gathered from online searches entered into MSN Search (since morphed into Microsoft Live Search). These data included both the queries entered and items clicked on by information seekers. My findings have been similar to those of the Economist: the current state of online search for consumer health information shows a vast improvement since the MSN Search analytical data were captured in May 2006.
Those searching at that time for information on tobacco cessation
using the most common such query, "quit smoking", never found the
National Library of Medicine's Medline Plus portal on smoking
cessation.This is important because domain experts generally regard
Medline Plus as the "gold standard" for consumer health information.
Worse, the first page of results seekers were shown in May 2006 (the
top 10) almost invariably appeared to contain only commercial
affiliate-marketing sites hawking quit-smoking remedies of various
I'm not talking about the ads shown on the result page -
these weren't included in the data set, but one can safely assume the
ads were dominated by the commercial sites as well. The result set
returned by the search engine itself was top-loaded with commercial
crap. The data set also showed that the first page of results was the
source of 99%+ of all clicks, so the first ten results for any given
search is critical to determining what the information seeker will find.
If one runs the same query now on Windows Live Search, the results are radically different:
(Click to view full graphic in separate window)
The inevitable ads are still there, including the "Sponsored Sites" at the top, but now there are some well-categorized links to specific subtopics in the new Microsoft Healthvault Search Beta site, and the "Articles About Quit Smoking" now lead off with a link to the Medline Plus portal and to the Wikipedia article. Good job, Microsoft!
I haven't written much about my thesis work yet, but I will try to do so soon.