Don’t Be Played for a Health Information Fool
By Tamer Abouras
Try as we might, it’s very difficult to resist running to stereotypes. At some point — perhaps carelessly or unwittingly — we all succumb to lazy generalizations based upon little (if any) empirical evidence.
It’s human and even in the instances where a stereotype is broadly correct, the idea behind avoiding them is largely to help avoid entering a situation prejudiced or lacking in objectivity. If you naturally assumed all college students were glued to their smartphones and incapable of holding an in-person conversation, for instance, you might be a little flummoxed if one did.
Still, inasmuch as you don’t want to go ahead and designate all southerners as lovers of country music or all Californians as instinctively laidback, the results of data-gathering such as surveys and polls are that they help increase our understanding about particular groups. So if someone were to tell you that people with lower literacy levels were more likely to obtain their health information from commercial sites several levels below a peer-reviewed journal, would you be all that surprised?
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According to findings published in the ARC Journal of Urology from researchers at Loyola Medicine and Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine, you shouldn’t be — but the degree to which these less educated and less literate people are being mislead may be worse than imagined.
A EurekAlert! press release about the article, entitled “The influence of literacy and education on online health information seeking behavior in cancer patients," stated that, “Researchers conducted a prospective study of 27 patients who were newly diagnosed with urologic cancer such as cancer of the bladder, kidney, prostate or testicles. Patients were asked to do an internet search about their cancer, and the computer was equipped with software that tracked their activity. Participants also took a literacy test and were asked about their education.”
"These findings should encourage physicians to guide patients towards appropriate high quality websites, particularly patients with low literacy and/or education levels," senior author Gopal N. Gupta, MD and colleagues wrote in the article.
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And what were those findings? See for yourself:
· 17 patients sought information from advertisement websites. Of those, 71% had below-average literacy scores
· 10 patients sought information on non-advertisement websites. Of those, 80% had above-average literacy scores
· Of the websites visited by those with a high school education, 32.9% were advertisements
· Among patients with at least a bachelor's degree, only 12.7% of the visited websites were advertisements
So there are plenty of causes for concern, just in terms of how many people lack college degrees, but here’s something a little more worrisome that the study bears out: The National Adult Literacy Survey estimates that as many as 50 million Americans have marginal literacy skills.
In a day and age where health misinformation runs rampant throughout the internet and can be packaged as new therapy or alternative forms of treatment, Gupta and his colleagues wrote that the study’s findings put an extra onus on medical professionals to fully inform patients and direct them to accurate, reliable sources of information.
“Clinicians need to be mindful of the variability in literacy and education of their patients in order to guide their patients towards balanced and reputable online health information sources," the researchers concluded.”
In the meantime, borrow one journalistic tip if you find yourself confronted by a “can’t believe it’s true” sort of health fact before subscribing to it: triple-check your sources.