Quality of Breast Cancer Information on the Web

February 13, 2008

We’ve posted before about the problems of identifying good health information on the web, and provided some tips for doing so. A study released by the journal Cancer this week addresses this very topic, examining websites with breast cancer information that turn up among the top results in various search engines and examining them according to a set of quality criteria.

The researchers evaluated 343 websites on various breast cancer-related topics, and found varying levels of accuracy, including 41 false or misleading statements on 18 (5.2 percent) sites. Government (.gov) sites received a 100 percent accuracy rating, with organizational (.org) sites receiving a 98 percent accuracy, “Other” (such as state government and non-U.S. sites) scoring 94 percent, commercial (.com) sites scoring 93 percent, and educational (.edu) sites faring worst at 86 percent accurate.

The authors also found that the type of topic covered by the website made a difference with regards to factual accuracy. Websites covering complementary medicine were most likely to include at least one inaccurate statement, and were 15.6 times more likely to contain inaccurate information than sites not covering this topic. Websites addressing psychology, reconstruction, and risk factors were also likely to contain inaccurate information.

Unfortunately, the authors do not specify for readers which sites were most inaccurate or what the errors were, noting that this is because “online information changes rapidly, and specific webpages are likely to have changed by the time our review is published.” Inclusion of this information might have been a good public service for women seeking breast cancer information. I’m curious, for example, whether the inaccurate “risk factor” information was related to the long-debunked abortion association myth, but it’s not possible to know from the published paper.

While I don’t 100 percent agree with all of the authors’ “technical quality” criteria or their conclusions about those criteria, the bottom line remains the same. Readers ultimately need to weigh various criteria, focusing on the most important ones such as interest disclosures (especially financial concerns), authorship and credentials, sourcing, and dating, and simply be skeptical of information that doesn’t meet these criteria and doesn’t come from a reliably trusted source. The investigated breast cancer websites were judged to be fairly accurate overall, but it’s always important consider the quality of a site before relying on the information it provides.

Citation: Bernstam EV, Walji MF, Sagaram S, Sagaram D, Johnson CW, Meric-Bernstam F. Commonly cited website quality criteria are not effective at identifying inaccurate online information about breast cancer. Cancer. 2008 Feb 11; [Epub ahead of print].