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How Do General Public Search Online Health Information?

Throughout the whole world, the Internet is increasingly being used to search for health information. Seeking for health information on the Internet can be very beneficial for the lay users (non-medical professionals), but due to the overwhelming quantity and uneven quality of online health information, it could also be time consuming, unable to provide unsuitable and poor information.. Some studies [1,2,3] have shown that most health information searches start from the use of search engines as Google and Yahoo. Other studies have highlighted that search engine use can actually increase cyberchondria among users, and that the search results are not always trustworthy nor reliable [4]. At the same time it was also shown that search engines specially designed for health and medical information retrieval provide more reliable results. In developing a new search engine focused on biomedical information, it is necessary to understand what is valued and desired by lay users looking for online health information, as well as to identify the usability barriers.

The survey was conducted by Health on the net Foundation in the framework of the EU project KHRESMOI as a partner. KHRESMOI aims to develop a multi-lingual and multi-modal search engine for biomedical information and documents addressing the needs of the lay population, medical doctors and radiologists. The survey was developed from December 2010 to March 2011 in collaboration with the Society of Physicians in Vienna, Austria. It was translated from English into French, Spanish and German. The French and English versions were launched at the beginning of March 2011, while the German and Spanish versions were available at the end of March 2011. The survey ended at the end of April 2011.

The study focused on understanding the preferences and needs of general public regarding the use of search engine for health and medical purposes.

Main findings:

  • 385 answers were collected, representing mostly the opinions of highly educated users from the healthcare and IT fields. Participants from 42 countries around the world filled the questionnaire, with France and Spain having the most contributors.
  • Most of the respondents reported connecting to the Internet via Wi-Fi, and many of them are using mobile devices (laptops and smartphones mostly).
  • The Internet was reported to be the second source of health information after physicians, due to its accessibility and “easiness” of use.
  • The most commonly searched types of online health information are treatment/therapy (62% rated it as always or often), detailed (58%) and general (53%) disease descriptions, drug information (51%), side effects (51%) and scientific articles (50%).
  • The most important characteristics of a search engine are relevance and trustworthiness of results. It seems that the main problem is that results currently retrieved using a general search engine do not satisfy these requirements.
  • The ideal representation of the information will be a categorization of the results into different groups. Helpful tools, which are highly appreciated by respondents, are advanced search, medical dictionary/thesaurus, suggested relevant topics, image search, and risk factor tools

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1. Online Health Search 2006. Fox S. Pew Internet & American Life Project. 29 Oct 2006.

2. How do consumers search for and appraise health information on the world wide web? Qualitative study using focus groups, usability tests, and in-depth interviews . Eysenbach G, Köhler C. 7337, s.l. : BMJ, 2002, Vol. 324.

3. The Internet as a diagnostic aid: the patients' perspective. Schembri G, Schober P. s.l. : Int J STD AIDS, 2009, International Journal of STD & AIDS, Vol. 20, pp. 231-233.

4. Cyberchondria: Studies of the Escalation of Medical Concerns in Web Search. White R, Horvitz E. s.l. : Microsoft Research, 2008.


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