Interpreting Health Information On The Web

February 2008 - New research from the University of New South Wales published in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association has found that while Internet searches to answer health-related questions can yield a huge amount of data, people tend to pay more attention to information that matches pre-existing beliefs.

Professor Enrico Coiera, director of the centre for health informatics said:

"Even if people read the right material, they are stubborn to changing their views. This means that providing people with the right information on its own may not be enough."

"We know that the web is increasingly being used by people to help them make healthcare decisions. We know that there can be negative consequences if people find the wrong information, especially as people in some countries can now self-medicate by ordering drugs online. Australians can order complementary medicines online and these can interfere with other medications."

"Our research shows that, even if search engines do find the 'right' information, people may still draw the wrong conclusions - in other words, their conclusions are biased."

Researchers also found that where the information appears in the search results and how much time a person spends looking at it is also significant, with the first or last item having much greater impact on decision-making.

Researchers are currently designing an interface to help people make sense of the information which they are presented with and to minimize bias in decision-making. This could have broader applications beyond the field of health.

Enrico Coiera concluded:

"The new search engine interface we have designed could be a part of any search engine and allows people to organize the information they find, and as a result organize their thoughts better."