While a growing number of consumers are turning to the Internet for information on health and health care, much of what they are finding on websites-especially about physicians-is unreliable.
In Accessing Physician Information on the Internet, a review of 40 physician directory websites, the authors report that many suffer from incomplete physician listings, few search options, and empty, inaccurate, or outdated data fields. The study, which was supported by The Commonwealth Fund, was prepared by Elliot M. Stone, Jerilyn W. Heinold, and Lydia M. Ewing of the Massachusetts Health Data Consortium, along with the Fund's Stephen C. Schoenbaum, M.D.
According to the report, only 25 of the 40 sites examined (63%) posted doctors' medical school, while just 10 (25%) listed their number of years in practice. Other physician characteristics that patients typically want to know were also absent: for example, less than half the sites provided doctors' gender and languages spoken, and none listed their race. Moreover, very few websites provided information on disciplinary actions, malpractice claims, mortality rates, or other clinical outcomes. The reviewed websites included those of hospitals, health plans, professional associations, and state medical licensing boards, as well as a number of commercial sites.
Websites that provide consumers with physician information are sorely in need of standards, according to the study's authors. They say each site ideally should include a disclosure statement about sources of data, whether physicians must pay to be included on the site, and whether their profiles are independently verified. Websites should also have information about the timeliness of the information displayed, an explanation of why a data field is empty, and a statement alerting users to the limitations of physician performance measures and the size of the database. If a site provides doctor recom-mendations, it should also provide an explanation of the recommendation process and its limitations.
Improving the accuracy and breadth of information on the Internet about physicians and their performance, the study says, will require a common set of standards agreed upon by accrediting organizations, health plans, hospitals, physician and hospital associations, and government, including state licensing boards. Facts and Figures
- Only 18 of the 40 websites reviewed for the study (45%) listed doctors' gender, 17 listed language(s) spoken (43%), one listed age (3%), and none listed race/ethnicity.
- While physician name and specialty were searchable on more than 85 percent of the websites where this information was viewable, board certification was searchable on only 27 percent and medical school attended was searchable on none.
- Nearly all the commercial websites studied had a preponderance of empty data fields, though rarely was an explanation given for why fields might be empty.