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Online forums winning trust over doctors

A leading computational bioinformatics researcher has warned about the risks of online health information forums, saying many users are endangering their health by trusting potentially ill-informed and misleading advice.

A study of online, patient-driven health forums by Dr Reeva Lederman of the University of Melbourne’s Computational Bioinformatics and Health Information Systems Research Group recently highlighted the risks of seeking medical advice online.

Lederman and her team assessed more than 600 posts on a range of online health forums pertaining to 12 different medical conditions. They found that the level of trust in the information posted had led to some users putting “their regular doctor out of the equation altogether”.

“One of the things we found, which I felt was very worrying, is that people using these forums put an awful lot of weight on literary competence,” Lederman said. “That's really quite problematic because many people speak good English, but it doesn't mean they're doctors.

“We trust our doctor because presumably they've had a six-year training process and they've got lots of experience with treating patients. There's really no reason we should trust the ordinary person we meet online.”

Another issue, Lederman said, was that in some cases the companies behind such websites are more focused on driving traffic to the site and building its user base than ensuring the advice and information posted is medically sound.

Lederman said that ultimately the industry was profit driven and featured operators that were “quite happy if information is put up that's sensational or interesting or that attracts people – attracts new readership”.

“You find really that social media, it's full of stories that don't really reflect reality, yet they're often written in an authoritative manner and people are willing to believe them,” she said.

“That's a significant danger – there's a huge amount of information out there that's presented as though it's medically sound, yet it just comes from ordinary people off the street, really.”

The news was not all bad for online health forums, however. Lederman said such websites could be valuable for helping patients understand their conditions, as well as supplementing or helping to clarify information their doctor gave them.

“These forums often give you information you can then go and discuss with your doctor. There's quite a lot of evidence out there that doctors don't always communicate that well,” she said. “If [going online] can help you bring along a list of questions to your doctor, then that's a significant benefit.”

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