Literacy Level May Affect Cancer Patients' Web Searches

computer searching health

When searching the Internet for health information, cancer patients with less education and lower literacy levels are more likely to visit poorer quality commercial websites, suggests a new study. The study was small -- 27 people -- but it offers insights as to how cancer patients find health information online.

The study was published in the ARC Journal of Urology.

The 27 patients in the study were newly diagnosed with a urologic cancer, such as bladder, kidney or prostate cancer. Almost all had previously used the Internet at home to look up health information and half had gone online to find information about their cancer diagnosis. Five of the patients scored below average on a literacy assessment test. 

After patients went to their clinic appointment, they were asked to spend five minutes on a self-directed Internet search about their cancer. Computer software tracked what sites they visited. Prior to the search, participants had completed a literacy test and were asked about their education.

The most frequently visited website categories were general cancer, general health, and advertisement, which was defined as a site that promoted the sale of a product, service or therapy. Previous studies have found that advertisement sites are less credible and of lower quality than noncommercial websites. Of the 27 patients, 17 visited advertisements sites, including those categorized as having below average literacy. Among the 10 patients looking at information on non-advertisement websites, the majority had above-average literacy scores.

Of all websites visited by those a high school education, 33 percent were advertisements compared to 13 percent by those with at least a bachelor’s degree.

Previous research cited in this study found that 92 percent of patients believe the Internet enables them to make health decisions and improve communication with their doctor. A recent survey estimates that one in six American adults have marginal literacy skills, struggling when reading anything other than short texts.

There are many limitations to this study, including the small sample size and brief Internet search. Prior Internet searches may have biased the searches and the Internet search functions may have led to unique results for each person. Yet, the authors write, this study can provide a methodology in this area, beyond urological cancer. Tihs future research would be applicable to other diseases and treatments, including preventative services.

Source: Leziga T. Obiyo, Chandy Ellimoottil, William Adams,Jessica H. Hannick. Gopal N. Gupta. The Influence of Literacy and Education on Online Health Information Seeking Behavior in Cancer Patients (pdf). ARC Journal of Urology, Volume 1, Issue 2, 2016, PP 20-26 .

Digital Promise. New Data on the Skill of American Adults. infographic (pdf).

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    Published on May 4, 2016

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