Consumers need to develop search and appraisal skills to get the best out of health information on the Internet, according to an Australian study.


The small study, documented in a set of articles in the Journal of Medical Internet Research  looking at how consumers search for health information, found a range of search and appraisal skills among participants, with many reporting a limited awareness of how they found and evaluated Internet-based information on medicines.


Six focus groups with a total of 46 participants from metropolitan Sydney were used to conduct the research.  All participants had used search engines to find information on medicines though their search skills ranged from “more advanced” to “less-than-optimal”.  Opinions on the credibility of information varied from those who saw pharmaceutical companies’ information as the official source to others who preferred what they saw as more impartial sources, such as government and educational institutions.


The researchers observe: “It was clear that although most participants were sceptical of trusting information on the Internet, they had not paid conscious attention to how they selected information on medicines. Despite this, it was evident that participants viewed the Internet as an important source for information on medicines.”


The researchers point out that poor interpretation of written information on medicines has been shown to lead to anxiety and poor compliance to therapy.


“This issue is more important for Internet-based information since it is not subject to quality control and standardization as is written information on medicines,” they say.


The researchers conclude that educating consumers in how to interpret Internet-based information on medicines may help them to use their medicines in a safer and more effective way.