Some breast cancer Web sites inaccurate, study finds

WASHINGTON Mon Feb 11, 2008 7:59am EST

A doctor examines a mammogram in a handout photo. REUTERS/National Cancer Institute

A doctor examines a mammogram in a handout photo.

Credit: Reuters/National Cancer Institute

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Five percent of breast cancer Web sites have mistakes, with those involving alternative or complementary medicine the most likely to be misleading, U.S. researchers reported on Monday.

But breast cancer information available on the Internet is more accurate than others carrying health information, the team at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in the University of Texas School of Health Information Sciences at Houston found.

"Our current recommendation to patients is to be skeptical, make sure what patients read is applicable to their specific medical well-being and not to take action without consulting a clinician," said Dr. Funda Meric-Bernstam, who led the study.

Writing in the journal Cancer, Meric-Bernstam and colleagues said they could not find an easy way to flag the inaccurate sites.

"Most consumers find online information by using general-purpose search engines rather than medical sites or portals, and most do not go beyond the first page of search results," her team wrote in the journal Cancer.

"Therefore, we used five popular search engines -- Google, Yahoo Directory, Alta-Vista, Overture, and AllTheWeb -- to identify Web pages that consumers are likely to encounter."

They examined 343 Web pages and found one in 20 had inaccuracies. They found 41 inaccurate statements on 18 of the Web sites, or 5.2 percent of sites.

Those displaying complementary and alternative medicine were 15 times more likely to contain false or misleading health information, they reported.

Meric-Bernstam said breast cancer patients often came to her well-informed, which is a good thing. "In contrast, there are times patients read about treatments that clearly do not apply to them, which can increase their level of anxiety or expectations for a treatment that they are not a candidate for," she said in a statement.

"The question that we really tried to answer was, if we could separate Web sites that have misinformation from sites that have more accurate content," added Dr. Elmer Bernstam from the University of Texas. "No combination of the criteria allowed us to differentiate the Web sites with accurate information versus those that did not."

"Many consumers are satisfied with the information they find online and make treatment choices on the basis of this information," the researchers wrote.

But they were troubled to find the sites addressing complementary and alternative therapies had the most inaccuracies, as doctors have less opportunity to correct mistaken beliefs about these.

"In some cases, patients do not discuss their use of online complementary and alternative medicine treatments with their clinicians," they wrote.

(Reporting by Maggie Fox, editing by Philip Barbara)

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