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 ProjectA
Contact: Annika Howard
Economic & Social Research Council