Poor Education, Literacy Levels Lead Some Patients To Equally Poor Online Health Information Queries

The old adage goes:  “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day but teach him to fish and he eats for a lifetime.”

The same can be said about education as a whole.  Learning is not only about obtaining information, but also about understanding how to get more information.  And this is at the center of a new study which suggest that parents who have a low level of education are more likely to obtain health information from less-than-stellar websites.

The Loyola Medicine and Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine study says that those with less education and lower literacy will more often visit a poor quality, commercial website, than their more educated—more literate—counterparts.

Literacy LevelsIn this case, a “commercial website” is defined as one which promotes the sale of a particular product or therapy or service.  Several existing studies indicate that these sites tend to be significantly less credible and of notably lower quality than noncommercial websites.

The study involved only 27 patients who had been recently diagnosed with urologic cancer: including cancers of the kidney, testicles, bladder, or prostate.  These patients were asked, after receiving their diagnosis, to conduct an internet search to get information about their respective conditions.  The laboratory computers were equipped with software that could track which sites the user visited and this is how the researchers were able to collect the information.  After the internet search phase, the group was also asked about their education history and then instructed to take a literacy test.

Of course, the findings are quite concerning because most Americans’ initial instinct is to find medical information online when interested or concerned about a particular illness, condition, or diagnosis.  But not all users are the same, obviously.

“These findings should encourage physicians to guide patients towards appropriate high quality websites, particularly patients with low literacy and/or education levels,” warrants senior study author Gopal N. Gupta, MD.

Furthermore, the researchers concluded: “Clinicians need to be mindful of the variability in literacy and education of their patients in order to guide their patients towards balanced and reputable online health information sources.”

The results of the study have been published in the ARC Journal of Urology.