The team also found that for accessibility and data transparency, the government and nonprofit sites were the most reliable. However, for appropriateness, the private sites were best, because they compared surgical procedures using a combination of information, including patient outcomes.
However, on all the sites tested, data was at least one year old, and many had two or more years-old data, Leonardi noted.
None of this means that patients shouldn't try and investigate hospital quality, however. "Patients should research where they get their surgery," Leonardi said. "The Internet can be very useful as long as patients use reputable Web sites," he said. "But we need to come up with a standardized approach to collecting and posting data."
One expert believes the Internet can be a good source of information on hospital quality, but patients should not rely on it alone to make decisions.
"Caveat emptor," (let the buyer beware) said Dr. Albert Wu, a professor of health policy and management at Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health, Baltimore. "Disagreements among Web sites suggest that some of them don't have the answer, or none of them have the answer," he said.
A lot of the data that appears on the Internet is being used in ways that it was never intended to be used, Wu added. This creates the possibility of misrepresentation. There's also a lag in the timeliness of the information provided, he said.
Wu believes patients should use the Internet but also get their information the "old-fashioned way," by getting references from other reliable sources. For doctors, Wu believes that there needs to be better criteria established to make sure the data on the Internet is both timely and consistent.
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