The invisible digital divide

The invisible digital divide

How patients access and consume medical information is fascinating. With the advent of the internet, most patients we treat have […]


How patients access and consume medical information is fascinating.

With the advent of the internet, most patients we treat have full access to essentially all known medical information. At first glance this is a wonderful resource for patients—the collective human knowledge of all available treatments to peruse at 2 AM when they wake up from wrist pain after having fallen earlier that day.

That is, until you Google it.

Taking a common condition, a broken wrist, we did just that. In an instant we had over 46 million results at our fingertips.

The sheer volume of information, without a vetting process, is overwhelming. We rely entirely on the smart folks at Google (and others) to sift, sort and rank order the important information for us to digest. But it is actually more complicated than that.

When we looked at the available information on the web about wrist fractures, we found that the accuracy of the content found in the top 10 website results varied according to the search term that was used. More sophisticated search terms correlated to more accurate information. For example, if the term “broken wrist” was used, we had access to less accurate information than if the more technical term, “distal radius fracture,” was used. We found similar findings when we did a similar search for “tennis elbow” vs “lateral epicondylitis.”

The information you are presented with depends on the search term you use. It is not that the information has disappeared from the web, it’s that you don’t always know the most specific or technical term to use and you don’t have any way of accessing ‘good’ information.

Our most important finding was that information published by large medical groups (such as the Hospital for Special Surgery or the Mayo Clinic) and the public information pages of large medical specialty societies (such as the American Society for Surgery of the Hand) have the most accurate information. This is likely because these larger groups have multiple surgeons curating and editing the content.

So, when in doubt, stick with the websites from credible medical institutions and societies and you will likely be led to better patient information.

J Hand Surg Am. 2012 Sep;37(9):1881-7. The effect of search term on the quality and accuracy of online information regarding distal radius fractures. Dy CJ1, Taylor SA, Patel RM, Kitay A, Roberts TR, Daluiski A.

Hand (N Y). 2012 Dec;7(4):420-5. Does the quality, accuracy, and readability of information about lateral epicondylitis on the internet vary with the search term used? Dy CJ1, Taylor SA, Patel RM, McCarthy MM, Roberts TR, Daluiski A.