Internet Browsing for Cancer Information Emphasizes Visual Appeal Over Accuracy

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Optimal patient education materials provide information and also encourage patients to engage with healthcare providers.
Optimal patient education materials provide information and also encourage patients to engage with healthcare providers.

While estimates show that the majority of people search online for information about health, the quality of the information sources is not always clear.1

For conditions surrounded by prognostic uncertainty, such as pancreatic cancer, information that patients find on the internet can have a profound effect on their knowledge and, therefore, their decisions. Optimal patient education materials harbor the potential to fill a knowledge gap in a way that encourages patients to engage with healthcare providers effectively, explained researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, in a recent report.2

Suitability of patient educational materials needs to be assessed in consultation with members of the intended audience in order for materials to be effective, explained the researchers. Their report marks a follow-up to an earlier study that focused on readability and accuracy of online health content regarding pancreatic cancer.3

The authors of this study noted that poor health literacy combined with limited access to health care, lack of support, and acute illness can result in poor clinical outcomes. At the same time, patients with recently diagnosed cancer are likely to look online for materials.

“This immediate need for simple, high-yield information combined with the advantages of widespread Internet access create a window of opportunity for website developers to recruit an avid audience, motivate the pursuit of professional care, and potentially modify the course of the disease among some patients,” explained the researchers.

Study Design

In the current study, 10 volunteers assessed the suitability of online patient education materials related to pancreatic cancer. Eligibility was limited to adults and based on fluency in English, ability to use a computer, and lack of the following: education in health sciences, personal or family experience with pancreatic cancer, and caregiving experience with cancer.

“Increasing the number of participants would increase precision of results, but still with 10 participants it is possible to obtain valid results that should be corroborated by other studies,” said first author Alessandra Storino, MD, a general surgery resident PGY-3 at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, in an interview with Oncology Nurse Advisor.

Participants examined 50 treatment-oriented websites chosen using location-based Google searches utilizing the phrase “pancreas cancer” with additional search terms from the following, with 10 sites for each: surgery, chemotherapy, clinical trials, radiotherapy, or alternative therapies. Sites could not have limitations such as fees or video-only content, and had ownership attributed to academic, government, media, private, or nonprofit categories.

Suitability was measured by the volunteers using a standardized suitability scoring method applied to various website features, including content, cultural appropriateness, learning stimulation and motivation, literacy demand, and visual features such as graphics, type, and layout. Suitability scores from 0% to 39% were considered “not suitable,” from 40% to 69% were considered “adequate,” and from 70% to 100% were considered “superior.”

Readability was assessed using 5 standardized metrics. A panel including an oncologist, a surgeon, and a radiation oncologist determined accuracy based on best available evidence. “Best available evidence is defined as current, up-to-date, non-controversial management as indicated by the medical literature,” noted Dr Storino.

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