Health Information On Online Forums Is Surprisingly Not Terrible, Study Finds, But Does That Mean You Can Trust Them?

Admit it: at some point, you've probably used the Internet to help you with a medical problem or health issue. But while trusting the unreliable shifting sands of the World Wide Web with your medical needs might be generally discouraged, a new study says that information found in health forums is actually pretty decent. Of course, that doesn't mean you can necessarily tell the good info from the inevitable bad info, but still. It's nice to know that Googling your symptoms isn't going to kill you. (Probably.)

If you're searching for health information, of course, your best recourse is a reputable website, but plenty of people still prefer to get information from forums or other places where they can ask for feedback directly, rather than looking things up. And while you might expect such places to be riddled with potentially dangerous misinformation — if we have learned anything, it's that you can never truly trust the Internet — researchers at the University of London noted that there are very few examples of documented harm that was directly caused by following bad medical advice online. So they decided to look into whether or not online health forums were reliable.

In the study, which was published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, the researchers looked at information found on three websites — Reddit, Mumsnet, and Patient — that related to chickenpox, diabetes, or HIV. The researchers selected a total of 25 questions posted on the websites about these diseases, some of which were asking for help with a self-diagnosis and some of them related to care after diagnosis. The information provided on the discussion threads was then shown to various assessors, including eight medical doctors and nine people who had other experience with the diseases in question, such as the chair of a diabetes support group. These assessors rated the information in the posts based on accuracy, completeness, usefulness, how sensible it was, and whether they felt someone would choose to act on it.

And the results?

Well, it comes as no surprise that not all information found on the forums could be trusted — of the 353 assessments, 11 were rated as extremely poor, which are not the kind of odds you're looking for when your health is at stake — but you're still surprisingly more likely to get good information than bad information, at least on these forums and for these diseases. In fact, in this study, 54 of the assessments indicated the information was extremely reliable. And most of the information was considered to be reasonably good.

"The results of this survey suggest that, in general, the health information found in discussion forums is of reasonably good quality and only rarely does it contain information that is very inaccurate," the researchers write in the paper. "The findings suggest that there is merit in further exploring the possibilities of online discussion forums for providing peer-to-peer health information."

So does this mean you can skip your doctor visits and outsource all your healthcare needs to the world wide web?

Well, I should hope the answer to that is a very obvious "no." But this does mean that based on preliminary research, online forums aren't likely to get people killed at the very least. And some people might even get good advice from them. Of course, some people, inevitably, are going to get bad advice, too, and therein lies the problem — how do you know, in an online forum, what quality of advice you're getting?

Overall, if you're looking to understand a potential medical problem or how to protect yourself from one, your best bet is a site like Mayo Clinic or the CDC, rather than a forum. After all, this is your health; do you really want to outsource it to the same collective madness that has a penchant for Photoshop pranks?

But it is nice to know that the Internet hoards seemingly aren't supplying faulty health information to people asking for help. Maybe there's some hope for humanity yet.

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