More and more people are starting to use the Internet to obtain health information. On certain websites, visitors can test themselves to find out what risk they run of developing a certain type of cancer. Alexandra Ekman examined a selection of such sites in 2001, 2002 and 2005, and her results show that none of them met all the quality criteria issued by the EU.
“Most sites are American, but all are available worldwide,” says Dr Ekman. “The information we found didn’t score particularly high on the quality scales we used. What’s more, there is no international consensus for quality criteria for the control and evaluation of information available online.”
However, Dr Ekman stresses that there are also sites that are fully adequate for assessing the risk of diseases. Her thesis started as an inventory in connection with a self-test for cancer that Karolinska Institutet launched a few years ago. The Swedish self-test was based on a site produced by the Harvard Centre for Cancer Prevention, which according to Dr Ekman maintains a high level of quality.
Her thesis also looks at the potential of the Internet in the new research field of
e-epidemiology. Information about diseases has traditionally been gathered through paper-based surveys, but there is much to suggest that web-based questionnaires give equally good results.
“Sweden is excellently suited for this kind of research because of our different population–based registries and our widespread use of internet, which reaches almost 100 per cent in some age-groups,” she says.
Epidemiology is the study of how diseases are spread throughout populations, and how risk and health factors interact with them. Researchers conducting such a study often monitor a large group of people over time to find out, for example, how their lifestyle affects their chances of developing a certain disease.
Doctoral thesis: “The Use of World Wide Web in Epidemiology Research” by Alexandra Ekman from the Department of Medical Epidemiology and Biostatistics, Karolinska Institutet, Sweden. ISBN: 91-7140-948-3. Downloadable from http://diss.kib.ki.se/index_se.cfm#thesis