Whom Can You Trust? The Resurgence of Online Healthcare …

The Resurgence of Online Healthcare Portals Warrants a Greater Focus on Consumer Trust
Alex S. Kasten, Consulting Analyst, Online and Mobile Health

Recent growth of new businesses in the online health information space demonstrates just how pervasive “health surfing” has become in revolutionizing the trillion dollar US health care industry. In fact, research by the Pew Internet and American Life Project study recently found that more than half of the Internet population (55%) turned to the Web for health information. Entrepreneurs who are launching health-related Web sites recognize the growing importance of the Internet as a health resource and tool for consumers and are using the Web to redefine the business of medicine. However, reports on the business of online health in mainstream media pay a great deal of attention to the business of online health care information but fail to provide insight into the difficulties consumers face when trying to evaluate the trustworthiness of particular Web sites when they go online.

Following the Money
The recent resurgence in online healthcare information couldn’t be more evident than with the launch of Steve Cases’ Revolution Healthcare portal, which the company previewed on January 22, 2007. Revolution now joins some other familiar brands, including a revitalized WebMD, which survived the dot.com bust by merging in the late 1990s with Healtheon, a healthcare transaction company established by Netscape founder Jim Clark, and HealthCentral Network, an aggregate site recently acquired by a high profile group of investors that includes the Carlyle Group. These commercial health sites and others have enjoyed substantial press, most of which focuses on their all star lists of partners and advisors, revenue strategies, and consumer services models. However, when we read about the latest health information portals, we rarely learn much about consumer advocacy or a strategy or desire to understand how consumers come to trust Web-based healthcare information.

Putting the Consumer First
Most press reports regarding online health information focus exclusively on the business aspects. For example, in a recent Washington Post article titled “Free Web Site Offers Glimpse of Case’s New Health Group” [Tuesday, January 23, 2007], we learn mostly about Revolution’s new Web portal and the business of building partnerships and bringing health content to the Web. An earlier report from the Post [“The Web Returns to Health,” August 8, 2006] describes the popularity of online healthcare sources, the value of the market, and some of the new players in this market. Similarly, in a Wall Street Journal article on social networking and online healthcare information [“The Informal Patient: Social Networking Comes to Healthcare; Online Tools Give Patients Better Access to Information and Help Build Communities,” December 27, 2006], we learn a great deal about the size of market (for example, the number of adults using the Internet to search for health information rose 16% in the last year to 138 million) and about current social networking communities, but virtually nothing about how consumers evaluate and come to trust this information.

This kind of reporting may be a boon for online businesses, but it’s a disservice to the consumer whom these businesses target. Ultimately, both business and the end-user may lose out. The numbers regarding online consumer habits tell the story.

A recent Pew Internet and American Life project survey found that only 25% of those searching online health information followed a recommended protocol for assessing the source and timeliness of information (i.e., checking a site’s sponsor, checking the date of the information, setting aside time for a health search, and visiting four to six times). Seventy-three percent of health information seekers had at some point rejected information from a Web site during a health search. The reasons for turning away included:

  • Believing that the site was too commercial and focused more on pitching products than providing accurate information;
  • An inability to determine the source of the information;
  • An inability to determine when the information was last updated; and
  • A lack of some sort of seal of approval.

The Challenge Ahead
Online success (which is measured in online healthcare by building a trusted, branded website that is oft-visited and has a reputation for accuracy and credibility) starts with recognizing the risks. For producer and consumer alike, the risks are high – especially as consumers seek to gain greater control over the management of personal medical records and their general well-being. As health-oriented social networking sites become more popular and consumers have an opportunity to participate in online health communities, branch into different conversations, and create networks of their own, educating the consumer on methods of evaluation becomes more urgent. Ultimately, content providers risk losing credibility if consumers perceive their content to be untrustworthy.

Perhaps producers of online healthcare information (and the media reporting on this subject) should focus on enabling consumer advocacy. Producers of online healthcare content could learn a great deal from the wealth of scholarly literature that examines the ways in which consumers evaluate online healthcare information. Some studies address the credibility gap regarding missing, inaccurate, or fraudulent information. More often, though, a site’s credibility has more to do with consumer perception and the visual clues consumers look for on a health-related Web site.

We need to recognize that the unregulated nature of the Internet still makes the task of searching for accurate, credible, and trusted information arduous for many. While the resurgence of online health information and innovation hold great promise, if we fail to better understand and empower the consumer, then everyone loses out.

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