Ramya Sriram, Content and Communications Specialist at Kolabtree, looks how new research considers where the public goes for medical information and how they can identify the reliability of online medical content.
In August 2018, Google rolled out a core algorithm update known as the ‘Medic Update’. Some websites saw an immediate drop in rankings while others benefited. As with most Google updates, the Medic Update is shrouded in mystery to a certain extent. However, it’s fairly evident that the algorithm rewards websites with well-researched, accurate medical content and penalises those whose content is lacking in terms of credibility. The update links to E-A-T (Expertise, Authoritativeness and Trustworthiness). These three factors determine page and site quality. Websites who fall short of E-A-T drop in the rankings and, ultimately, receive fewer views.
Why was Google Medic needed in the first place? The answer is simple – medical information online is unregulated. Anyone can create medical content and share it online. It doesn’t need to be verified by a medical professional or adequately researched. This content can be misleading and, ultimately, dangerous, when you consider how many people Google their symptoms or use the search engine to research specific conditions. Inaccurate information can cause people to put off visits to the doctor or lull them into a false sense of security. It’s important that the most accurate, most respected and most thoroughly researched medical content sits on the top of the search engine results.
In light of this critical Medic Update, we looked into the public’s attitude, trust and reliance regarding medical content online. With this research, we can explore how important the update was in the first place and what demographics are more susceptible to medical misinformation on Google.
Dr Google or the GP
We asked the UK public the following questions to get a better understanding of where they get their medical information, what websites they trust and how susceptible they are to medical misinformation.
- Where do you get your medical information?
- Do you think that platforms, such as Facebook and Google, should take steps to reduce the spread of medical information by people with little or no medical training?
- When you feel ill or experience unusual symptoms, what do you do first?
- Have you ever misdiagnosed yourself after reading medical content online?
We also looked into people’s attitudes towards the regulation of medical content online.
“Nearly two-thirds of the respondents questioned (59.4%) believed that platforms such as Google and Facebook should accept responsibility for the health content they showcase”
Sources of medical information
Where do you get health information from?
938 answers from 622 respondents
The first question of our study asked: ‘Where do you get your health information?’
The available answers were:
- The internet (results at the top of Google)
- The internet (trusted government websites)
- The internet (other sources)
- Your doctor
- Friends and family
- Social media networks
- None of the above.
Before we get into the results, we would like to point out that people could (and generally did) vote for more than one source of information. The average number of options chosen was 1.5. This means most participants have more than one source of health content – for example, their doctor and internet results from trusted government websites.
Thankfully, most of the recipients (56.7%) said their doctor was their primary source of information.
The second most popular source (26.2%) are those sites at the top of Google. These are the sites that Google’s Medic Update deemed trustworthy and worthy of high visibility. A slightly smaller percentage (25.1%) claimed that, while the internet was also their preferred source of medical content, they went straight to authoritative government websites. A minority (8.4%), selected “The internet (other sources)” and only 4.5% admitted they got their medical information from social media networks.
When we look at the data and add up sources of online content, we can see that slightly more people (64.2%) turn to the internet for health information than those who visit the doctor directly (56.7%). This is understandable – medical information is easily, quickly and freely available online. An appointment with a doctor to receive general medical information isn’t as quick and easy. The average person might wait weeks for an appointment.
When filtering the results by age and gender, we got some interesting results. It turns out that more women (60%) than men (53.4%) are likely to use their doctor as a source of health information. When it comes to online content, women are marginally more likely to trust government websites while men are more likely to go to sites at the top of Google. We also noticed a generational divide. Older generations are more likely to get their medical advice from doctors, while younger generations tend to go to Google. This finding could indicate the Medic Update stands to protect young people more than seniors, as they are more likely to read it and be misled.
Medical information by medical professionals
Do you think that platforms, such as Facebook and Google, should take steps to reduce the spread of medical information by people with little or no medical training?
The second question we asked was ‘Do you think platforms, such as Facebook and Google, should take steps to reduce the spread of medical information by people with little or no medical training?’. Respondents could answer ‘Yes’, ‘No’ or ‘I’m not sure’.
This question delves into the responsibility of major platforms and whether they should be monitoring and regulating health content online.
Nearly two-thirds of the respondents questioned (59.4%) believed that platforms such as Google and Facebook should accept responsibility for the health content they showcase. These people are concerned about the impact of content written by people who are not qualified to speak on medical-related matters. Only a small percentage (14.1%) of respondents said they didn’t believe these platforms should take any steps to prevent the spread of medical misinformation. It’s worth exploring why this is. It could be because the internet, by its very nature, is a platform that encourages and accepts free speech – some might be uncomfortable regarding regulation or censoring in this area. Or perhaps these respondents believe it is up to the individual, rather than the platforms, to decide who and what to trust.
26.6% of our respondents said they weren’t sure about the matter. The subject is complicated and nuanced, so it’s natural for there to be some uncertainty.
When we look at the data in more detail, we can see more women (61.9%) than men (56.8%) are in favour of major platforms reducing the spread of medical information written by laypeople. Furthermore, we generally found the older the generation, the more in favour they are of monitoring medical information.
First steps for symptoms
When you feel ill or experience unusual symptoms, what do you do first?
Our third question asked, ‘When you feel ill or experience unusual symptoms, what do you do first?’. The available answers were:
- Google my symptoms
- Call my GP
The results of this question might come as a surprise. It seems 56.8% of people call their doctor first when feeling ill or experiencing symptoms. Only 43.2% said they turned to Google. Despite the ease and convenience of the internet, it seems people would rather go to their doctor as their first port of call. This is a good sign. The internet can be useful as a means of information after a diagnosis. However, if people are concerned about their health, they should go to the doctor immediately, so that they can get a professional opinion on their symptoms.
Again, we saw a divide in terms of gender and age. Women (50.9%) are more likely than men (35.3%) to Google their symptoms first. Men (64.7%) are more likely to go to their doctors first when compared to women (49.1%).
Interestingly, younger generations are more likely to turn to Dr Google first. 56.7% of 18-24-year-olds Google first. We can compare this to the age group aged 65+, who Google first only 19.2% of the time. These figures show younger people have come to trust and rely on online medical content. Meanwhile, the older generations are less trustful and more conventional with regards to health matters.
Have you ever misdiagnosed yourself after reading medical content online?
Finally, we wanted to look into how many people misdiagnosed themselves after reading medical content. Our final question asked ‘Have you ever misdiagnosed yourself after reading medical content online?’, to which respondents could answer either ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.
Comfortingly, most people (73.1%) have never misdiagnosed themselves after reading medical information online. This leaves 26.9% of our respondents who have, at some point, misdiagnosed themselves as a result of reading health content online.
As you may have guessed, generational divides present themselves here yet again. Nearly half (44.1%) of 18-24-year-olds have misdiagnosed themselves online at some point when compared to only 10.6% of those aged 65+. Of course, we’ve already established this age group is less likely to read and trust online health content. They are also unlikely to use it to diagnose themselves, preferring instead to go to their GP.
The combined results of our survey paint an interesting picture. There is an overriding belief that older generations are most susceptible to medical misinformation. However, our results show the Medic Update serves to protect the younger generation, as these are the people who have grown up with the internet. They trust content online. They go to it as a source of information and not everyone will be able to identify legitimate and trustworthy sources. In this sense, the Medic Update is adapting to protect Google’s most loyal users, to keep them healthy and well-informed.
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