Not all Health Information on the Web is Created Equally

modern chair with attached computer monitor

Photo by Mads Boedker

In addition to being a speech-language pathologist, I am also working towards a Master’s degree in communication. My specific area of interest is health communication, which I came to rather naturally as my work at ASHA evolved. Part of what I do is develop content for brochures and other consumer materials, including what exists on the ASHA website. In the beginning, I approached this from my SLP background and clinical experience and described clinical disorders and other topics from that perspective. Over time, I started to realize that what I developed, while not wrong, was likely missing the mark in terms of what the reader wanted. I came to this realization after stumbling across information about health literacy, which led me to research on the readability of consumer materials developed by health professionals and organizations, including ASHA.

I also learned about how people use the Internet to search for health information and how the information they often find is difficult to understand or does not address their specific questions. I stepped back and took a more critical look at the information that existed in ASHA materials and on the website and found that there was room for improvement. And I’m happy to report that ASHA has spent a number of years now working on making those improvements, which hopefully some of you have noticed in products like consumer brochures and the Let’s Talk: Patient Education Handouts, as well as on the public side of ASHA’s website (for those of you who haven’t yet seen the recently updated information about hearing and hearing loss on ASHA’s public site, I invite you to take a look).

This semester I am taking a class on eHealth Communication, which focuses on the theory and practice of communicating health information via electronic means. We recently had a discussion about health related web pages and how they are “hit or miss” in terms of being understandable, valid, and meaningful. We talked about how the average web user may not always know whether a site is “good” or filled with misinformation. We had many questions, such as can people easily figure out if the content was developed by a credible source or guided by those with a financial interest in the decisions readers might make from what they read on the site? Are they able to make decisions based upon what they read (or see and hear if video and audio are included on the site)? Do they find information that means something to them or is it too generic or complex to have any real value?

Coincidentally, the day after this discussion, the leader of ASHA’s wellness team posted an article from the New York Times talking about this very issue. The article compared and contrasted two well-known health web sites – WebMD and the Mayo Clinic – and talked about the content, the design, and the motivations behind the two sites. The class discussion and the article got me thinking – how do I assess the sites I go to? I definitely look at the number and type of ads and I try to figure out who authored the information. I also look at how it is written and will only delve into really complex, technical content if I am highly motivated about the topic. Because of my background and personal interest in health communication, I may be more critical of the writing style, use of terminology, and layout than most, but I do consider that when deciding if I want to spend any time on a site.

So now I ask you – what factors do you consider when determining if you are going to spend time on a site? Do you suggest sites for your patients? How do you decide which ones are the most appropriate? Do you ever follow-up to see if they found the site or found it useful? The Internet is full of information and not all of it is good. Knowing that many people search the web for health information, it really seems that it is our professional responsibility to help guide our patients as best we can. And maybe we can learn something ourselves along the way.

Amy Hasselkus, M.A., CCC-SLP, is associate director of health care services in speech-language pathology at ASHA. She is also currently enrolled in a Masters degree program in communication at George Mason University, with an emphasis on health communication.

Comments

  1. The Medical Library Association has some excellent criteria for evaluating health information sites on the web, as well as a list of what they consider to be the best sites within specific medical categoies (http://mlanet.org/resources/userguide.html). I also look for the Health on the Net logo when evaluating a web site (http://www.hon.ch/). Sites that display this logo have met the criteria of the Health on the Net Foundation and are evaluated annually for compliance.

  2. Deedee Moxley says:

    It’s also important to factor in the patient/caregiver’s state of grief/acceptance. Sometimes, it’s not necessary to provide a high level of detail, since the patient isn’t ready. It’s important to consider how the web site structures the ability of the patient to “dig farther” for more detailed information when they are able to process it.