Interactive Use of Online Health Resources: A Comparison of Consumer and Professional Questions

J Am Med Inform Assoc. 2016 Jul;23(4):802-11. doi: 10.1093/jamia/ocw024. Epub 2016 May 4.


Objective: To understand how consumer questions on online resources differ from questions asked by professionals, and how such consumer questions differ across resources.

Materials and methods: Ten online question corpora, 5 consumer and 5 professional, with a combined total of over 40 000 questions, were analyzed using a variety of natural language processing techniques. These techniques analyze questions at the lexical, syntactic, and semantic levels, exposing differences in both form and content.

Results: Consumer questions tend to be longer than professional questions, more closely resemble open-domain language, and focus far more on medical problems. Consumers ask more sub-questions, provide far more background information, and ask different types of questions than professionals. Furthermore, there is substantial variance of these factors between the different consumer corpora.

Discussion: The form of consumer questions is highly dependent upon the individual online resource, especially in the amount of background information provided. Professionals, on the other hand, provide very little background information and often ask much shorter questions. The content of consumer questions is also highly dependent upon the resource. While professional questions commonly discuss treatments and tests, consumer questions focus disproportionately on symptoms and diseases. Further, consumers place far more emphasis on certain types of health problems (eg, sexual health).

Conclusion: Websites for consumers to submit health questions are a popular online resource filling important gaps in consumer health information. By analyzing how consumers write questions on these resources, we can better understand these gaps and create solutions for improving information access.This article is part of the Special Focus on Person-Generated Health and Wellness Data, which published in the May 2016 issue, Volume 23, Issue 3.

Keywords: consumer health informatics; consumer language; online information seeking; question answering.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study

MeSH terms

  • Consumer Behavior
  • Consumer Health Informatics
  • Consumer Health Information* / statistics & numerical data
  • Health Personnel
  • Humans
  • Information Seeking Behavior*
  • Internet
  • Natural Language Processing