The zeitgeist of online health search. Implications for a consumer-centric health system

J Gen Intern Med. 2006 Feb;21(2):134-9. doi: 10.1111/j.1525-1497.2005.0295.x. Epub 2005 Dec 7.


Background: Health care queries rank among the most frequent topics of information-seeking activity initiated by users of commercial search engines. The quality of information located through existing search engine technology has received little attention, especially when considering the widely varied knowledge levels of internet users.

Objective: This study sought to create a benchmark technology assessment of online health search trends and practices, with corresponding evaluation of its applicability within the Federal Health Architecture (FHA) plan for a nationwide, interoperable health information infrastructure.

Design: Exploratory technology assessment, analyzing focus group participants' views on barriers to effective health information searching, using existing commercial search engine technologies and methods.

Setting and participants: Focus group, national leaders in electronic health care (e-health).

Results: A variety of web-based assessment tools are available for consumers to be able to identify reliable health websites; however, many may be too difficult for the layperson to use or understand. Existing search technologies are increasingly powerful, although the expanding volume of information on the internet suggests the need for better mediated searching. Search engines provide consumers a means for quickly bypassing information that appears too technical for their individual knowledge level, and at times, searchers often overlook critical information most relevant to their needs. Overall, existing search technologies need to be more interactive, visible, and context-driven, and supported by better technology assessment methodologies, scalability of information, and enhanced access by underserved subgroups.

Conclusion: Future technology assessments are needed to provide structure for interoperability of health information systems, especially where consumers, providers, and payer systems intersect. State-of-the-art search engine technologies are still not widely available to those who can benefit most from them.

Publication types

  • Evaluation Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Benchmarking*
  • Consumer Advocacy*
  • Focus Groups
  • Health*
  • Humans
  • Information Services / standards*
  • Information Storage and Retrieval / standards*
  • Internet*