When searching for health advice online, consumers often reject websites with high quality medical information in favour of those with a human touch, according to new research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).
Faced with a minefield of information of variable quality, health consumers subject websites to an initial weeding-out process that will eliminate most NHS and drug company websites from the search within a matter of seconds.
The study, carried out by Professor Pamela Briggs at Northumbria University, together with colleagues at both Northumbria and Sheffield Universities, explored how health consumers decide whether or not to trust the information and advice they find online.
The researchers observed the search strategies of people who wanted to find specific health information and advice (about hypertension, menopause and HRT, the MMR vaccine, or generally improving their health and fitness) and found that many websites were dismissed at quite amazing speeds.
"One thing that really put people off was advertising, so people clicked off drug company websites straight away", explains Professor Briggs. "Generally, the medical information on drug company sites is very accurate but people question the authors' motivation and agenda. The issue of impartiality is quite crucial in building trust."
The NHS websites fared little better. Often these were rejected because the first page participants were directed to was a portal or had too much background or generic content. "People don't have the patience to scroll through pages in order to find something useful. Ease of access is so important", says Professor Briggs.
Even if a site makes a favourable first impression, it is unlikely to keep our attention if there are no personal stories that we can relate to. People are looking for advice from like-minded people and are drawn to sites such as the charity based DIPEx and ProjectAWARE where they can read about the experiences of other people who have the same problems and concerns.
Despite rejecting many of the more 'reputable' sites, participants in this study did manage to find information of reasonable quality. But Professor Briggs warns that our searching strategy has the potential to let us down:
The tendency to particularly trust sites that contain contributions from like-minded peers could have dangerous effects on some groups of consumers, such as those with anorexia, by reinforcing unhealthy behaviour patterns, she explains.
The researchers have developed a set of guidelines for designing engaging and trustworthy sites and have shown that trustworthy sites have more influence on consumer behaviour.
They found that moderate to heavy drinkers who viewed trustworthy websites describing the health risks involved with alcohol consumption reduced their alcohol intake more than those who viewed the same information on a site with untrustworthy features such as adverts or links to pharmaceutical companies.
But the most important advice for those trying to promote health information on-line is to use engaging stories about people with similar experiences. Professor Briggs concludes:
"The great strength of the internet is that you can find people who have had the same problem that you have and see how they have coped with it -- to forget about that, or to act as if it's not happening, is missing the point."
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