Health, Finance Sites Lack Credibility

Your money or your life could be in jeopardy if you trust everything you read online, according to an extensive joint global study from Consumers International and Consumer WebWatch on health and finance sites.

The study, conducted between April and July 2002 and led by researchers from 13 countries, assessed more than 460 health and finance Web sites worldwide to determine their overall level of credibility. The findings may make consumers think twice about trusting the information that is available online.

“The results of this research are particularly alarming when you consider that the majority of consumers using the Web are relying on it for credible information they can trust,” said Anna Fielder, director for Consumers International’s Office for Developed and Transition Economies. “Consumers are being put at risk by misleading, inaccurate and incomplete information, for example, where they need to seek health or financial help. There is an urgent need for consumers to be alerted to this matter.”

The research found that almost half (49 percent) of the evaluated health and financial sites failed to give warnings about the appropriate use of their data, neglecting to inform consumers about consulting a professional. Furthermore, at least half of the sites that gave medical or financial advice on failed to provide full information about the authority and credentials of the people behind that advice.

Other findings include:

  • 57 percent of general advice sites gave sources for that advice.
  • 39 percent of sites that collected personal information did not have a privacy policy.
  • 62 percent of sites contained claims that were vague and unspecific.
  • 55 percent of sites said nothing about how up-to-date their content was.
  • 30 percent of sites provided no address or telephone number.
  • 41 percent of the sites that recommended products gave sources for their prices.
  • 26 percent of sites gave no clear information about who owned them.
  • 60 percent of sites provided no information that indicated whether or not their content was influenced by commercial interests.

The lack of credibility among health sites could have severe implications. Pew Internet Project found in May 2002 that of the 73 million Americans who go online to find answers to health questions, only about one quarter follow experts’ advice and thoroughly check the source and date of the information they find online. Furthermore, 18 percent say they have gone online to diagnose or treat a medical condition on their own, without consulting their doctor.

But “e-patients” look at the information with a skeptical eye: Pew found that 73 percent of online health seekers have at some point rejected information from a Web site during a health search for one reason or another.

Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet Project, sums up the findings: “There are millions of Americans now looking online for specific answers to targeted questions. They often use the information in making important decisions about interacting with their doctors, getting diagnoses, and treatments. But e-patients are generally cautious about what they find. The ease of using the Internet and the abundance of health information online are not changing their entire approach to health care.”

The Internet’s influence is evident on users’ financial decisions as well. Pew found in May 2002 that 22 percent of American Internet users who made a major financial or investment decision in the past two years say their use of the Internet played a crucial or important role in that decision, and another 26 percent say the Internet played a minor role. Pew also found that Internet veterans were five times more likely than Internet newcomers to have gone online and been helped in their quest for information related to investments.

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