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Breast Cancer Web Sites Not Always Accurate

CancerWise - April 2008

After evaluating Web sites with information about breast cancer, researchers concluded that while most information they contain is accurate, a considerable amount is not.

The study, published in the March 15 issue of the journal Cancer, was conducted by researchers from M. D. Anderson and The University of Texas School of Health Information Sciences at Houston.

Goal of the study

"We set out to answer whether we could separate Web sites that have misinformation from sites that have more accurate content,” says Funda Meric-Bernstam, M.D., an associate professor in M. D. Anderson’s Department of Surgical Oncology.

Significance of results

The Pew Internet and American Life Project estimates that more patients get health information online than from physicians.

Meric-Bernstam says many of her patients surf the Internet for cancer information and are knowledgeable about breast cancer even before their first appointment.

"Often it's clearly a benefit,” she says. “For example, some of my patients had previously been to physicians who recommended mastectomies, but who were really candidates for breast conservation. They researched their conditions online and then sought out surgeons capable of performing the surgery."

“In contrast, sometimes patients read about treatments that clearly do not apply to them, and this can increase their level of anxiety or expectations. Of course, one also worries about patients who go online and then ultimately do not seek any treatment, despite it being necessary."

Research methods

More than 343 Web pages found with popular search engines were reviewed based on several criteria.

Criteria included:

  • Display of authorship
  • Date of creation
  • Date of last modification

Primary results

Forty-one inaccurate statements were found on 18 Web sites, or 5.2%. One in 20 breast cancer Web pages featured inaccuracies, and sites concerning complementary and alternative medicine were 15 times more likely to contain false or misleading health information.

The assessment criteria used by researchers did not help differentiate between the accurate and inaccurate sites.

What’s next?

The researchers are developing a screening or automated tool to help consumers detect which Web sites contain misinformation.

"Our current recommendation to patients is to be skeptical, make sure what they read applies to their specific medical condition and to consult a medical professional before taking any action," Meric-Bernstam says.

- Adapted by Dawn Dorsey from an M. D. Anderson news release

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© 2014 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center