Can Internet Information on Vertebroplasty be a Reliable Means of Patient Self-education?
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Studies of the quality and accuracy of health and medical information available on the Internet have shown that many sources provide inadequate information. However, to our knowledge, there are no published studies analyzing the quality of information available online regarding vertebroplasty. Because this has been a high-volume procedure with highly debated efficacy, it is critical that patients receive complete, accurate, and well-balanced information before deciding a treatment course. Additionally, few studies have evaluated the merit of academic site authorship or site certification on information quality, but some studies have used measurements of quality that are based primarily on subjective criteria or information accuracy rather than information completeness.
The purposes of our study were (1) to evaluate and analyze the information on vertebroplasty available to the general public through the Internet; (2) to see if sites sponsored by academic institutions offered a higher quality of information; and (3) to determine whether quality of information varied according to site approval by a certification body.
Three search engines were used to identify 105 web sites (35 per engine) offering information regarding vertebroplasty. Sites were evaluated for authorship/sponsorship, content, and references cited. Information quality was rated as “excellent,” “high,” “moderate,” “low,” or “unacceptable.” Sites also were evaluated for contact information to set up an appointment. Data were analyzed as a complete set, then compared between authorship types, and finally evaluated by certification status. Academic sites were compared with other authorship groups and certified sites were compared with noncertified sites using Student’s t-test.
Appropriate indications were referenced in 74% of sites, whereas only 45% discussed a contraindication to the procedure. Benefits were expressed by 100% of sites, but risks were outlined in only 53% (p < 0.001). Ninety-nine percent of sites provided step-by-step descriptions of the procedure, and 44% of sites also included images. Alternative treatments were mentioned by 51% of sites. Twenty-seven percent of sites referenced peer-reviewed literature, 41% offered experiential or noncited data based on American populations, and 7% offered analogous data from international populations. Thirty percent of sites provided contact information for patient appointment scheduling. Seven percent of sites were classified as excellent quality, 6% as high quality, 11% as moderate quality, 19% as poor quality, and 57% as unacceptable. Sixteen percent of sites were sponsored by academic institutions, 62% by private groups, 8% by biomedical device companies, and 14% were sponsored otherwise. Academic sites reported fewer risks of the procedure than private sites or other sites (p = 0.05 and p = 0.04), but reported more risks than industry sites (p = 0.007). Academic sites were more likely than sites classified as other to offer contact information for patient appointment scheduling (p = 0.004). Nine percent of sites evaluated were Health on the Net Foundation (HONCode) certified. No association with improved information quality was observed in these sites relative to noncertified sites (all p > 0.05).
Internet information regarding vertebroplasty is not only inadequate for proper patient education, but also potentially misleading as sites are more likely to present benefits of the procedure than risks. Although academic sites might be expected to offer higher-quality information than private, industry, or other sites, our data would suggest that they do not. HONCode certification cannot be used reliably as a means of qualifying website information quality. Academic sites should be expected to set a high standard and alter their Internet presence with adequate information distribution. Certification bodies also should alter their standards to necessitate provision of complete information in addition to emphasizing accurate information. Treating physicians may want to counsel their patients regarding the limitations of information present on the Internet and the pitfalls of current certification systems.
Level of Evidence
Level IV, economic and decision analyses. See the Instructions for Authors for a complete description of levels of evidence.
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