Boston, Mass. Nearly one-half of U.S. adults who use the Internet participate in social networks. While these increasingly include health-focused networks, not much is known about their quality and safety. In one of the first formal studies of social networking websites targeting patients, researchers in the Children's Hospital Boston Informatics Program performed an in-depth evaluation of ten diabetes websites.
Their audit found large variations in quality and safety across sites, with room for improvement across the board. As reported online January 24 in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association, only 50 percent of the sites presented content consistent with diabetes science and clinical practice. Even fewer offered both scientific accuracy and patient protections such as safeguarding of personal health information, effective internal and external review processes and appropriate advertising.
For instance, seven of the ten sites did not allow members to restrict the visibility of their profiles. Five carried advertisements that were not labeled as such. And three sites went as far as to advertise unfounded "cures."
"We saw that people are sharing incredible amounts of personal health information on these sites, including highly identifiable information," says Elissa Weitzman, ScD, MSc, lead author on the study and an assistant professor in the laboratory of Kenneth Mandl, MD, MPH. "They are eager to accelerate their understanding of the disease, obtain support, find treatments and see if their experience is common or different."
"There is on the one hand an enormous focus in the U.S. on health information privacy," Mandl adds. "But privacy in a social network is somewhat of an oxymoron. On the whole, these networks tend to be about exposing your information online."
The team evaluated diabetes websites that appeared prominently in Google searches and allowed members to create personal
|Contact: Keri Stedman|
Children's Hospital Boston