Checking online to stay abreast with health information? Identifying the need to provide surfers with the right material, American researchers have unveiled a new and improved approach that can help users evaluate web-based health information.
A research review conducted by a team from the University of Florida found that 86 per cent of adult patients use the internet to get answers to health-related questions, but only 28 to 41 per cent consult primary healthcare providers about the information they find out.
Dr Bryan A Weber, an associate professor from the University's College of Nursing, said: "This discrepancy suggests that the majority of users accept web-based health recommendations in lieu of professional advice.
"The internet is a wonderful resource if used properly and there are some very informative and reliable health websites available if patients know what to look for."
And so the team have come up with an acronym - GATOR (genuine, accurate, trustworthy, origin and readability) - to encourage healthy surfing.
They are also encouraging patients to discuss what they have found on the internet with healthcare professionals, rather than using that information as a substitute for professional medical advice.
Dr Weber said: "Some people use the internet to find out more about medical conditions because they find it more convenient, less embarrassing or it enables them to avoid healthcare costs.
"The big problem is that health sites are not regulated and it is down to the company or individual running the site to determine how accurate, responsible and frequently updated any information is.
"Added to that, the majority of patients don't have the medical knowledge to evaluate the reliability of the advice they are being given.
"We recognise that it is inevitable that the majority of patients will continue to seek health information online. That's why we've developed the acronym, to help patients to find and evaluate health information while avoiding the negative consequences from trying unsafe recommendations drawn from untrustworthy sites."
He added: "The GATOR approach to assessing health information websites is an easy to remember strategy that requires few resources to implement and can be taught to patients in just a few minutes.
"We hope that it will encourage safer surfing and encourage patients to use the internet as a starting point for health discussions, rather than as a substitute for professional healthcare advice."
The approach has been discussed in the May issue of the Journal of Clinical Nursing.