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Study: Government Should Help Americans Determine Reliability of Health Info

By Neda Semnani, CQ Staff

September 4, 2008 -- The government should do more to help American consumers sift through multiple sources of health care information to help them to determine the material they use is timely and accurate, the Center for Studying Health System Change (HSC) said in a new study.

Determining the source of the information and the date it was published, as well as finding out whether the material is sponsored by a drug company or an independent entity, are basic ways individuals can vet the information they receive, according to the study.

"I think a lot of consumers need some guidance to find information they can trust," said Ha T. Tu, senior health researcher and co-author of the HSC report.

In 2007, 56 percent of adults—up from 38 percent in 2001—sought health care information from a variety of sources, including books and periodicals and from friends and family, the study found. In addition, 32 percent of consumers—70 million American adults—reported using the Internet to find health information, double the number of adults who reported using Web sources in 2001.

While there are several good Web sites that help consumers compare medical services, such as the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services' (CMS) Hospital Compare site, there are few that also include consumer guidelines, and finding them requires a level of consumer sophistication that many don't have, Tu said.

CMS spokesman Peter Ashkenaz disagreed that reliable information is hard to find. CMS' Hospital Compare site, which reports on the quality of care in U.S. hospitals, has been viewed more than 20 million times this year, the agency said.

"Our Compare sites are important for helping people make decisions," Ashkenaz said. CMS currently does not publish guidelines for individuals on what to look for when researching health information.

The HSC report said the amount of individuals looking for health information has increased, including among those consumers who have been less inclined to seek out health information in the past, such as elderly populations or those without a high level of education. In 2007, both groups actively sought information about their health concerns and often used the Internet in their search. The study also found that 85 percent of African Americans and 87 percent of Hispanics who sought health information were more likely to report changes to their daily health routine than other groups.

However, it is mainly highly educated consumers or those with chronic conditions who are likely to discuss their health findings with their doctors, the study found.

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