Background: The Internet offers a seemingly endless amount of health information of varying quality. Health portals, which provide entry points to quality-controlled collections of websites, have been hailed as a solution to this problem. The objective of this study is to assess the extent to which government-run health portals provide access to relevant, valid and understandable information about the effects of health care.
Methods: We selected eight clinically relevant questions for which there was a systematic review, searched four portals for answers, and compared the answers we found to the results of the systematic reviews.
Results: Our searches resulted in 3400 hits, 155 of which mentioned both the condition and the intervention in one of the eight questions. Sixty-three of the 155 web pages did not give any information about the effect of the intervention. Seventy-seven qualitatively described the effects of the intervention. Twenty-six of these had information that was too unclear to be categorised; 15 were not consistent with the systematic review; and 36 were consistent with the review, but usually did not mention what happens without the intervention, what outcomes have been measured or when they were measured. Fifteen web pages quantitatively described effects. Four of these were abstracts from the systematic review, nine had information that was incomplete and potentially misleading because of a lack of information about people not receiving the intervention and the length of follow-up; one had information that was consistent with the review, but only referred to three trials whereas the review included six; and one was consistent with the review.
Conclusion: Information accessible through health portals is unlikely to be based on systematic reviews and is often unclear, incomplete and misleading. Portals are only as good as the websites they lead to. Investments in national health portals are unlikely to benefit consumers without investments in the production and maintenance of relevant, valid and understandable information to which the portals lead.