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Original Investigation
September 2016

Assessing the Accuracy and Readability of Online Health Information for Patients With Pancreatic Cancer

Author Affiliations
  • 1Pancreas and Liver Institute, Department of General Surgery, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts
  • 2Division of Hepatobiliary and Pancreas Surgery, University of California, Irvine Medical Center, Orange
JAMA Surg. 2016;151(9):831-837. doi:10.1001/jamasurg.2016.0730

Importance  The degree to which patients are empowered by written educational materials depends on the text’s readability level and the accuracy of the information provided. The association of a website’s affiliation or focus on treatment modality with its readability and accuracy has yet to be thoroughly elucidated.

Objective  To compare the readability and accuracy of patient-oriented online resources for pancreatic cancer by treatment modality and website affiliation.

Design  An online search of 50 websites discussing 5 pancreatic cancer treatment modalities (alternative therapy, chemotherapy, clinical trials, radiation therapy, and surgery) was conducted. The website’s affiliation was identified. Readability was measured by 9 standardized tests, and accuracy was assessed by an expert panel.

Main Outcomes and Measures  Nine standardized tests were used to compute the median readability level of each website. The median readability scores were compared among treatment modality and affiliation categories. Accuracy was determined by an expert panel consisting of 2 medical specialists and 2 surgical specialists. The 4 raters independently evaluated all websites belonging to the 5 treatment modalities (a score of 1 indicates that <25% of the information is accurate, a score of 2 indicates that 26%-50% of the information is accurate, a score of 3 indicates that 51%-75% of the information is accurate, a score of 4 indicates that 76%-99% of the information is accurate, and a score of 5 indicates that 100% of the information is accurate).

Results  The 50 evaluated websites differed in readability and accuracy based on the focus of the treatment modality and the website’s affiliation. Websites discussing surgery (with a median readability level of 13.7 and an interquartile range [IQR] of 11.9-15.6) were easier to read than those discussing radiotherapy (median readability level, 15.2 [IQR, 13.0-17.0]) (P = .003) and clinical trials (median readability level, 15.2 [IQR, 12.8-17.0]) (P = .002). Websites of nonprofit organizations (median readability level, 12.9 [IQR, 11.2-15.0]) were easier to read than media (median readability level, 16.0 [IQR, 13.4-17.0]) (P < .001) and academic (median readability level, 14.8 [IQR, 12.9-17.0]) (P < .001) websites. Privately owned websites (median readability level, 14.0 [IQR, 12.1-16.1]) were easier to read than media websites (P = .001). Among treatment modalities, alternative therapy websites exhibited the lowest accuracy scores (median accuracy score, 2 [IQR, 1-4]) (P < .001). Nonprofit (median accuracy score, 4 [IQR, 4-5]), government (median accuracy score, 5 [IQR, 4-5]), and academic (median accuracy score, 4 [IQR, 3.5-5]) websites were more accurate than privately owned (median accuracy score, 3.5 [IQR, 1.5-4]) and media (median accuracy score, 4 [IQR, 2-4]) websites (P < .004). Websites with higher accuracy were more difficult to read than websites with lower accuracy.

Conclusions and Relevance  Online information on pancreatic cancer overestimates the reading ability of the overall population and lacks accurate information about alternative therapy. In the absence of quality control on the Internet, physicians should provide guidance to patients in the selection of online resources with readable and accurate information.