Background: Concerns over online health information-seeking behavior point to the potential harm incorrect, incomplete, or biased information may cause. However, systematic reviews of health information have found few examples of documented harm that can be directly attributed to poor quality information found online.
Objective: The aim of this study was to improve our understanding of the quality and quality characteristics of information found in online discussion forum websites so that their likely value as a peer-to-peer health information-sharing platform could be assessed.
Methods: A total of 25 health discussion threads were selected across 3 websites (Reddit, Mumsnet, and Patient) covering 3 health conditions (human immunodeficiency virus [HIV], diabetes, and chickenpox). Assessors were asked to rate information found in the discussion threads according to 5 criteria: accuracy, completeness, how sensible the replies were, how they thought the questioner would act, and how useful they thought the questioner would find the replies.
Results: In all, 78 fully completed assessments were returned by 17 individuals (8 were qualified medical doctors, 9 were not). When the ratings awarded in the assessments were analyzed, 25 of the assessments placed the discussion threads in the highest possible score band rating them between 5 and 10 overall, 38 rated them between 11 and 15, 12 rated them between 16 and 20, and 3 placed the discussion thread they assessed in the lowest rating band (21-25). This suggests that health threads on Internet discussion forum websites are more likely than not (by a factor of 4:1) to contain information of high or reasonably high quality. Extremely poor information is rare; the lowest available assessment rating was awarded only 11 times out of a possible 353, whereas the highest was awarded 54 times. Only 3 of 78 fully completed assessments rated a discussion thread in the lowest possible overall band of 21 to 25, whereas 25 of 78 rated it in the highest of 5 to 10. Quality assessments differed depending on the health condition (chickenpox appeared 17 times in the 20 lowest-rated threads, HIV twice, and diabetes once). Although assessors tended to agree on which discussion threads contained good quality information, what constituted poor quality information appeared to be more subjective.
Conclusions: Most of the information assessed in this study was considered by qualified medical doctors and nonmedically qualified respondents to be of reasonably good quality. Although a small amount of information was assessed as poor, not all respondents agreed that the original questioner would have been led to act inappropriately based on the information presented. This suggests that discussion forum websites may be a useful platform through which people can ask health-related questions and receive answers of acceptable quality.
Keywords: Internet; Medicine 2.0; Web-based and mobile health interventions; communication; eHealth; health care information systems; health literacy; information science; information seeking; social media.