23 October 2008

No-sponsor websites give best info

If you're searching the Internet for surgery information, you may want to stick with sites run by professional medical groups and other sources free of commercial sponsors.

If you're searching the Internet for surgery information, you may want to stick with sites run by professional medical groups and other sources free of commercial sponsors, a new study suggests.

In a study that examined the quality of various surgery-related websites, researchers found that unsponsored sites generally gave more reliable information than sponsored sites did. When it came to the specific sources, sites run by professional medical groups got the highest marks, followed by government-run sites.

The findings, published in the Journal of the American College of Surgery, underscore the need for consumers to consider the source when looking for online medical information.

Improve surgery outcome
"Empowering patients with a trusted source of information will lead to better informed patients and, in turn, improved expectations of surgery outcomes," senior researcher Dr Clifford Ko, a professor of surgery at the University of California, Los Angeles, said in a statement.

"Surgeons should steer patients to high-quality medical websites until an accepted, widely used seal of credibility is established," Ko added.

For their study, Ko and his colleagues assessed 145 websites they found doing a Google search for various types of surgery, like gastric bypass and gallbladder removal. Of these sites, 90 were unsponsored and 55 were sponsored.

Sponsored sites are those in which advertisers pay the search engine for a "sponsored link." These links are listed separately from other website hits on the search-results page, and ordered according to how much the advertisers paid and how often consumers click on the link.

Ko and his colleagues analysed all 145 sites for criteria such as how accurately they explained the risks and benefits of a procedure, whether the information was up-to-date and whether the site limited advertising.

Unsponsored sites scored twice as high
Overall, the researchers found, unsponsored sites scored twice as high on the quality scale as sponsored sites did. No site run by a professional medical society or by the government was sponsored, and these sites generally had the most reliable information, the study found.

At the other end of the spectrum, sites representing law firms or advertisers had the poorest-quality information, according to Ko's team.

They suggest that consumers looking for online information on surgery stick with sources such as professional medical societies.

They also recommend that people search for technical terms instead of layperson ones - "Nissen fundoplication" rather than "heartburn surgery," for example. In their search, the researchers note, layperson lingo yielded more sponsored sites than medical terms did.

Ko and his colleagues also stress, however, that no matter how internet-savvy patients are, online information should never take the place of doctor-patient discussions. - (Reuters Health)

SOURCE: Journal of the American College of Surgery, October 2008.

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