OJHAS Vol. 10, Issue 2:
for Using Online Social Networking Technologies to Reduce Inaccurate
Online Health Information
D. Young, Department of Family Medicine, University of California at
Los Angeles, USA
Address for Correspondence
Department of Family Medicine,
University of California at
10880 Wilshire Blvd, Suite
Los Angeles, CA 90024, USA.
Young SD. Recommendations
for Using Online Social Networking Technologies to Reduce Inaccurate
Online Health Information. Online J Health Allied Scs.
Submitted: Apr 6,
2011; Accepted: Jul 15, 2011; Published: Jul 30, 2011
This short report highlights patients' increasing use of the
Internet and online social networking technologies to seek health
information, and the consequences
of gaining information from sites with biased or inaccurate
health information. Reflecting on the utility of online social networking
technologies for reaching large audiences, practical advice is listed for how health providers can use these technologies to improve the quality of health information that patients receive over the Internet. We recommend that health providers use online social networking technologies to communicate with patients and health
information consumers and direct them to reputable sources with accurate
health information. We outline the steps to this approach.
Online social networking
technologies; Online sources of health information; Practical advice
than 10 years ago, an Internet search with the keywords “online health
information resources” would have retrieved approximately 70,000 related
websites.1,2 Today the same search leads to over 154 million
related web sites. The tremendous growth of online health information
sources helps to explain how nearly 8 out of 10 people use the Internet
to search for health information and base their health decisions and
behaviors on these sources. In fact, on a typical day in 2005, approximately
8 million (2.7%) Americans searched for health information on at least
1 health-related topic.3 Just four years later, 61% of Americans
have reported searching for health information online and over 60% of these
people have reported that their online searches impacted their health decisions.4 This number continues to grow each day.
social networking technologies, such as Facebook, are also impacting
people’s health decisions and behaviors. Online social networks allow
users to set virtual profile pages where they can communicate with other
users by sending messages, sharing pictures and videos, and live chatting.
Over 500 million people are currently using Facebook, and consumers
have the opportunity to use these online social networking technologies
to find health providers, join patient groups, and search for health
information.5 As online social networks continue to grow,
patients will increasingly turn to these networks for seeking health
information, support groups, and physician referrals.
sources of online health information both on the general Internet and
on online social networks may contain inaccurate information. For example,
a study in the Netherlands looked at 121 health web sites providing information
on 5 common health topics (chronic obstructive lung disease, ankle strain,
emergency contraception, abnormally heavy menstrual bleeding, and tubal
ligation) using peer reviewed, published guidelines on how to provide
safe and accurate health information. They found that only one quarter
of the sites met at least two out of three criteria that were needed
for quality health information and nearly half met less than one. In
a separate meta-analysis study, the authors discovered that 55 out of
79 studies (70%) reported that online health information sources contain
low quality and inaccurate information.6
online health information can often result from biased sponsors or conflicts
of interest. For example, many of the advertisements and web sites providing
information about the relationship between vaccines and Autism can be
attributed to wealthy anti-autism groups.7 These sponsored
health information sites support physicians’ reports that fears about
vaccines have led 54% of parents to refuse to allow their child to be
fully vaccinated, and 85% refused their child to have one or more shots.8
practitioners are becoming increasingly aware of the reality of the
problems associated with patients receiving inaccurate health information.
Sites with inaccurate or biased health information are 1) increasing
rates of patient self-medicating, 2) leading patients to pass on inaccurate
information to others, and 3) reducing patient adherence to provider
recommendations.6 These problems are growing rapidly:
one study showed that inaccurate posts on the online social network,
Twitter, instantly connected over 850,000 people who can respond and
perpetuate the misinformation.9
simply increasing the number of reputable sites online will not necessarily
lead patients to receive accurate health information because patients
are often making cursory and uneducated health information searches.
A usability study on computer-savvy participants (ages 19-71) found
that participants judged health information by whether it “sounded
scientific” and looked professional.10 Nearly all participants
trusted what they read although none of them checked the source, read
about the home site, or read the disclaimers or disclosure statements.
Instead of increasing the number reputable sites online, highlighting
reputable sources of health information may help to better direct consumers
to receive accurate health information.
government is taking an increasingly active role in patient health,
we wish to argue that government-appointed committees would not need
to be the sole method for highlighting reputable health information
web sites. Instead, health providers can play an active role in this
process, and through this process, reduce the costs associated with
appointing government committees for this purpose.
have called for an evidence-based approach to deliver health information
using technologies,11 and providers can use these technologies
to deliver information about the accuracy of health information online.
By using online social networking technologies, the same technology
that many patients are using to discover health information, providers
can reach large audiences of current and potential future patients and
reduce the influence of sites with inaccurate health information.
Through the use of these technologies, health providers can post information
to help patients receive accurate health information online. These posts
could require as little time as providing recommendations for valid
sources of health information and suggestions for sites to avoid, to
as much contact with patients as providing active blog posts updating
patients about online sources health information and the accuracy of
few providers maintain or endorse the use of online social networking
sites. There are multiple reasons why providers may choose to not have
online social networking pages or to not use them for delivering health-related
advice. For instance, they might: 1) think it will take a long time
to set up an online social networking page, 2) not know how to use online
social networking technologies, 3) think that it takes too much time
to use them, 4) fear the legal consequences of providing medical advice
over the Internet, 5) do not see the financial benefit of setting up
a profile, and 6) do not want patients contacting them outside of their
office. For example, a recent article in the New England Journal of
Medicine described a physician’s initial reluctance to add a former
patient as a Facebook friend.12 By setting up an online
social networking page, providers might therefore believe they are releasing
their identify and exposing themselves to future problems with future
or former patients. We believe that these issues can be addressed.
write this paper to communicate our beliefs that health providers, through
a small commitment to use online social networking technologies, can
play an active role in preventing the growing trend of patients receiving
inaccurate health information online. Fortunately, they can do this
in a way that takes little time, is in accordance with legal regulations,
and will bring both societal and economic rewards without compromising
their privacy or identity.
outline the following steps for health practitioners and believe that
these steps can prevent patients from receiving inaccurate health information
and improve the practice of health providers:
1) Create an account on
Facebook, Myspace, or any online social networks that may be relevant
to your specialization and the patients you advise. Accounts can
be set up as profile pages, describing an individual, or as a corporate
or (secondary) page. A secondary account can be created in order to
keep your profile professional and public while also being able to maintain
a private life.
2) Provide information about
your expertise along with a statement that includes advice that you
would provide for others including websites that you have seen provide
accurate health information. By posting references to websites that
are reputable sources for health information (such as the Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention websites), health providers will be able
to reduce the impact of consumers receiving inaccurate health information
online. Further, providers can avoid potential legal issues by referring
online health information seekers to view government websites that have
been set up to provide accurate health information. In the United States,
only 1 of the top 10 most visited health websites is a government (.gov)
3) Provide information about your
expertise to inform patients about your background and experience. Include any advice that you are
comfortable sharing (such as common mistakes/misinformation that your patients have learned from Web
sites offering inaccurate information, along with recommendations for Websites that provide accurate
Provide information about your specialty and background. It is important
to set up security settings and state your level of commitment to those
who might contact you. Taking a more active role in communication with
patients via social networking technologies (such as through multi-media
posts or blog updates) could potentially increase patients for providers
who want to expand their practice. In fact, many people report having
found a health provider or keeping in touch with their provider through
online social networks.14
consumers of health information are at risk because they are using disreputable
health information sources to guide their health decisions and behaviors.
This report has offered practical advice on how health information providers
can use online social networking technologies to direct consumers to
reputable health information sites in order to curb this problem. We
believe these steps will be in the best interest of both health providers
and patients, and will be a cost-effective approach to reduce the consequences
of patients receiving inaccurate online health information
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