Saturday, March 11, 2006

Treloar: Internet Cures Illnesses

Naturopath Mr Treloar's weekly radio appearance had him, this week, relating a study in the Journal of Health Communication in which, according to him, 442 patients who obtained information from the internet about cancer recovered quicker, since it "empowered" them. He also mentioned another study (the details of which he unfortunately could not remember) which stated that 80% of information on the internet is correct (though, of course, organisations not seeking your money were the best sources to go to).

EoR was intrigued by this, since it is his anecdotal experience that most information on the internet is incomplete, out of date, lacking context, erroneous or misleading, unless it is confirmed by other, independent, reputable sites (and not just ones that have cut and pasted the original source). Health information particularly so.

The nearest thing EoR could locate that might be the study mentioned by Mr Treloar is this one.
Since searching for health information is among the most popular uses of the Internet, we analyzed a survey of 6,019 callers to the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) Cancer Information Service (CIS) to assess Internet usage and interest in technologies to access health and cancer information. Findings suggest that about 40% of CIS callers used the Internet to obtain cancer information and, of these, only about 20% found all the information they sought. Nearly 33% of Internet users called the CIS to discuss information found on the Internet; most (>90%) reported that the CIS was helpful. Those who sought cancer information on the Internet were more likely to call the CIS about this information if they found all or most of the information they were seeking, compared with those who found some or little of the information. New communication services endorsed by most CIS callers included e-mails from an information specialist and telephone support from the CIS while on the Internet. The survey results indicate the importance of multiple access points, both traditional and technology based, and that there is still a need for more traditional, personalized forms of health communication. A crucial question is how best to harness and integrate these new technologies within the current generation of mediated health information systems.

Which doesn't really support Mr Treloar's assertions. Most people are not finding the information they want on the internet, and most are still seeking the advice of an official telephone help line and "more traditional, personalized forms of health communication".

In another, smaller, study, the researchers found
Only two patients never looked for health information. Of all patients, 20% had used the Internet to get health information, 8% because of the current visit, i.e. a third of all with Internet access had used it because of the current visit. Women used the sources of information more than men did. Personal contact with family, friends or neighbours was the most commonly used source. Conclusion - The Internet is used in direct preparation for a visit to the general practitioner. The vast majority of patients use the mass media for information. In general practice, the main source of information on a health-related subject is personal contact with family and friends.

Still nothing about Mr Treloar's bold statement that people who use the internet for health information recover more quickly. EoR wonders where he got that from, or whether it's simply a symptom of delusional thinking. Delusional thinking! Now there's something to go and look up on the internet.

The 80:20 correct information ratio also seems very dubious. EoR wonders what the measure was: total number of pages, total number of sites, total number of words? These would all give different results. Was search engine ranking taken into account? A google for "cancer" returns 292,000,000 hits! Obviously, not all of these can be assessed individually, so any study would have to apply some filter to selectively choose sites. And how exactly do you tell if you're viewing one of the 80%, or one of the 20%?

EoR also does not support the coded warning against Big Pharma that "non-profit organisations" were the best source of information. The source of information on the internet is one of the most important validating points for that information. Profit, by itself is no more an indicator of truthfulness than an obvious lack of profit motive is. Mr Treloar is effectively arguing against any information provided by commercial entities. It's like buying a car without regarding the manufacturer's information. The information is probably biased, but it needs to be assessed accordingly, not ignored. Maybe you should just go on what a friend says (a popular source of information amongst the alternatistas) or what some self-professed 'expert' on the radio claims.

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