Spring 2015

Spin Doctors

Hospital websites give unbalanced medical information, according to a systematic survey of 262 institutions 

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Illustration: Phil Marden

Seeking medical information online has become something of a reflex for consumers. In fact, one recent study estimates that about three-quarters of all Americans turn to the Internet for such data over the course of a year.

Hospital websites play a natural role in this mix. But just how reliable is the information they provide to consumers? Maciah Kincaid, M.D./M.P.H. ’15, working with researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, reviewed the websites of 262 U.S. hospitals that were promoting a relatively new procedure called transcatheter aortic valve replacement, or TAVR, as a test case to see how well the sites presented the benefits and risks of the procedure.

The study was published in JAMA Internal Medicine in January.

Findings showed an overwhelmingly positive spin. Almost all—99.2 percent of the websites—described at least one benefit of TAVR compared with the traditional surgical aortic-valve replacement. Most commonly cited benefits were TAVR’s lower degree of invasiveness (mentioned on 95 percent of the sites), the potential for faster recovery (48 percent) and the potential for a better quality of life (45 percent).

“Patients may assume that the content on these websites is informational, not persuasive.”

In contrast, just 26 percent of hospital websites mentioned even a single risk associated with the procedure, such as stroke. Further, a magnitude of benefits was quantified on 37 percent of hospital websites, while a magnitude of risks appeared on less than 5 percent of sites.

Kincaid took heart in knowing that few people get their medical counsel solely from online sources. “Patients will often receive information from a multitude of sources, including a face-to-face discussion with their physician,” she notes.

In a commentary that accompanied the study, two bioethicists—Yael Schenker from the University of Pittsburgh and Alex John London at Carnegie Mellon University—observed that hospital websites function in part as a medium for advertisements.

“Patients may assume that the content on these websites is informational, not persuasive,” they write. “Patients who are referred to such pages to learn about a procedure may not be aware that they are consuming promotional materials rather than impartial educational resources.”

Schenker and London go on to say: “Poor-quality medical information is hard to recognize unless the person reading it is a clinician.”

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Spin Doctors

Hospital websites give unbalanced medical information, according to a systematic survey of 262 institutions