Papers

How do consumers search for and appraise health information on the world wide web? Qualitative study using focus groups, usability tests, and in-depth interviews

BMJ 2002; 324 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.324.7337.573 (Published 09 March 2002) Cite this as: BMJ 2002;324:573
  1. Gunther Eysenbach (ey{at}yi.com), senior researcher,
  2. Christian Köhler, researcher
  1. Unit for Cybermedicine and eHealth, Department of Clinical Social Medicine, University of Heidelberg, Bergheimer Str 58, 69115 Heidelberg, Germany
  1. Correspondence to: G Eysenbach
  • Accepted 30 January 2002

Abstract

Objectives: To describe techniques for retrieval and appraisal used by consumers when they search for health information on the internet.

Design: Qualitative study using focus groups, naturalistic observation of consumers searching the world wide web in a usability laboratory, and in-depth interviews.

Participants: A total of 21 users of the internet participated in three focus group sessions. 17 participants were given a series of health questions and observed in a usability laboratory setting while retrieving health information from the web; this was followed by in-depth interviews.

Setting: Heidelberg, Germany.

Results: Although their search technique was often suboptimal, internet users successfully found health information to answer questions in an average of 5 minutes 42 seconds (median 4 minutes 18 seconds) per question. Participants in focus groups said that when assessing the credibility of a website they primarily looked for the source, a professional design, a scientific or official touch, language, and ease of use. However, in the observational study, no participants checked any “about us” sections of websites, disclaimers, or disclosure statements. In the post-search interviews, it emerged that very few participants had noticed and remembered which websites they had retrieved information from.

Conclusions: Further observational studies are needed to design and evaluate educational and technological innovations for guiding consumers to high quality health information on the web.

What is already known on this topic

What is already known on this topic Little is known about how consumers retrieve and assess the quality of health information on the internet

Qualitative data are needed to design educational and technological innovations to guide consumers to high quality health information

What this study adds

What this study adds Users of the internet explore only the first few links on general search engines when seeking health information

Consumers say that when assessing the credibility of a site they primarily look for the source, a professional design, and a variety of other criteria

In practice, internet users do not check the “about us” sections of websites, try to find out who authors or owners of the site are, or read disclaimers or disclosure statements

Very few internet users later remember from which websites they retrieved information or who stood behind the sites

Footnotes

  • Funding Partly supported by the EU Safer Internet Action Plan (http://europa.eu.int/iap/), conducted as part of the MedCERTAIN project (http://www.medcertain.org/), a joint project of the Department of Clinical Social Medicine, University of Heidelberg, Germany; the Institute for Learning and Research Technology (ILRT), University of Bristol, UK; and the Finnish Office for Health Care Technology Assessment (FinOHTA) at the Finnish National Research and Development Centre for Welfare and Health (STAKES).

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Accepted 30 January 2002
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