Objective: To assess medical information provided in a medically oriented Internet discussion group, in terms of the professional status of the individuals providing information, the consistency of the information with standard medical practice, and the nature of the evidence cited in support of specific claims or recommendations.
Design: Standardized review of 1,658 consecutive messages on a particular online discussion group during a 5-month period.
Setting: An online discussion group for sufferers of painful hand and arm conditions.
Subjects: All participants in this discussion group during the study period.
Measurements and main results: Professional training of those offering medical information, consistency of the advice and recommendations offered with conventional medical practice, and nature of evidence cited in support of medical claims were determined. Of all messages, 55.9% (927) addressed a medical topic. Of these, 79% (732) provided medical information, of which 89.3% (654) were authored by persons without professional medical training, and 5.1% (37) were authored by trained health professionals. Approximately one third of the medical information provided was classified as unconventional. Personal experience was the basis of information provided in 61% of the nonprofessionals' messages and 13.5% of the professionals' messages, while no source was given as the basis of information provided in 29.8% of the nonprofessionals' messages and 67.6% of the professionals' messages. A published source was cited in 9.2% of the nonprofessionals' and 18.9% of the professionals' messages.
Conclusions: These findings suggest that medical information available on Internet discussion groups may come from nonprofessionals and may be unconventional, based on limited evidence, and/or inappropriate.