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Predictors of inaccurate online breast cancer information


A new study has found that one in twenty breast cancer web pages contained inaccurate information, and that web sites devoted to complementary or alternative medicine were fifteen times more likely to have false information. The study is published in the March 15, 2008 issue of CANCER, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Cancer Society, and suggests that patients consult clinicians before taking action on breast cancer information gathered on the Web.

Dr. Funda Meric-Bernstam of The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center and Dr. Elmer Bernstam from The University of Texas School of Health Information Sciences investigated the usefulness of current quality-rating instruments designed to help patients find accurate information on breast cancer. The investigators used five popular search engines--Google, Yahoo Directory, Alta Vista, Overture, and AllTheWeb--to identify Web pages that consumers are likely to use when searching for breast cancer-related information.

A total of 343 unique web pages were evaluated. Each web page was assessed for 15 quality criteria, including display of authorship, authors' and physicians' credentials identified, general disclaimers provided, references provided, and date of creation or last update identified. The authors also reviewed the accuracy of the Web pages with respect to breast cancer guidelines including those of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network.

Dr. Meric-Bernstam and colleagues found 41 false or misleading statements on 18 of the Web pages (5.2 percent). Web pages containing information on complementary and alternative medicine were found to be 15.6 times more likely to contain inaccuracies than pages without this type of information. No quality criteria or Web site characteristic (link type, search engine used, and domain extension), singly or in combination, reliably identified inaccurate information.

The authors concluded that while most breast cancer information that consumers are likely to encounter online is accurate, commonly cited quality criteria do not identify inaccurate information. They advised that patients "should be encouraged to maintain a healthy level of skepticism about online health information, consider the reputation of the source, and consult an appropriate clinician before taking action."


Article: "Commonly Cited Website Quality Criteria Are Not Effective at Identifying Inaccurate Online Information About Breast Cancer." Elmer V. Bernstam, Muhammad F. Walji, Smitha Sagaram, Deepak Sagaram, Craig W. Johnson, and Funda Meric-Bernstam. CANCER; Published Online: February 11, 2008 (DOI: 10.1002/cncr.23308); Print Issue Date: March 15, 2008.

Contact: Laura M. Sussman, M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, 713-745-2457,

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