Can Information from Online Health Forums be Trusted?

Research examines accuracy of health care information on discussion board web sites Reddit, Mumsnet, and Patient.

A recent study concluded medical information and advice given through online forums may not be as bad or harmful as once believed.

Researchers looked at the popular discussion board web sites Reddit, Mumsnet, and Patient to determine the accuracy of information provided.

Doctors, as well as the public, were asked to rate responses to questions asked on the online forums that dealt with diabetes, HIV, and chickenpox. The results of the study showed that there were mostly positive ratings to the responses. Even when the information was inaccurate, researchers felt the advice wasn’t necessarily bad or detrimental.

However, the National Health Service (NHS) and other medical charities don’t have total confidence in supporting internet discussions. Although patients have the freedom to discuss diagnoses and symptoms, researchers feel the forums could relay inaccurate information and advice that could be harmful.

"In reality, forums such as Reddit have very responsible posting policies, verifying the qualifications of posters who claim to be medical professionals, separating medical discussion forums from alternate therapy discussions, swiftly removing incorrect or potentially harmful information and encouraging posters to seek professional healthcare," said researcher Jennifer Cole.

"It's important we understand how accurate such discussion platforms are likely to be, and what helps or hinders their accuracy,” Cole added. “With NHS resources under pressure, the number of GP appointments and A&E walk-in admissions increasing, such forums may offer a viable alternative for future health care."

During the study, researchers surprisingly had the most difficulty in finding enough examples that had truly inaccurate information.

“Inaccurate information is dealt with on-thread by posters themselves, who will usually challenge it and post up alternative points of view,” said Head of Policy and Campaigns at Mumsnet Rowan Davies. “We think it's rare for incorrect or out-of-date information to go unchallenged."

Davies told researchers that there had not been a single case where information passed on through the forums and read on Mumsnet, caused someone harm.