The recent surge in online health information and consumer use of such information has led to expert speculations and prescriptions about the credibility of health information on the World Wide Web. In spite of the growing concern over online health information sources, existing research reveals a lacuna in the realm of consumer evaluations of trustworthiness of different health information sources on the Internet.
This study examines consumer evaluation of sources of health information on the World Wide Web, comparing the demographic, attitudinal, and cognitive differences between individuals that most trust a particular source of information and individuals that do not trust the specific source of health information. Comparisons are made across a variety of sources.
The Porter Novelli HealthStyles database, collected annually since 1995, is based on the results of nationally-representative postal-mail surveys. In 1999, 2636 respondents provided usable data for the HealthStyles database. Independent sample t tests were conducted to compare the respondents in the realm of demographic, attitudinal, and cognitive variables.
The most trusted sources of online health information included the personal doctor, medical university, and federal government. The results demonstrated significant differences in demographic and health-oriented variables when respondents who trusted a particular online source were compared with respondents that did not trust the source, suggesting the need for a segmented approach to research and application. Individuals trusting the local doctor were younger ( t
2634= 4.02, P< .001) and held stronger health beliefs (F 1= 5.65, P= .018); individuals trusting the local hospital were less educated ( t
2634= 3.83, P< .001), low health information oriented (F 1= 6.41, P= .011), and held weaker health beliefs (F 1= 5.56, P= .018). Respondents with greater trust in health insurance companies as online health information sources were less educated ( t
2634= 1.90, P= .05) and less health information oriented (F 1= 4.30, P= .04). Trust in medical universities was positively associated with education ( t
2634= 11.83, P< .001), income ( t
2634= 10.19, P< .001), and health information orientation (F 1= 10.32, P<.001). Similar results were observed in the realm of federal information credibility, with individuals with greater trust in federal sources being more educated ( t
2634= 7.45, P< .001) and health information oriented (F 1= 4.45, P= .04) than their counterparts.
The results suggest systematic differences in the consumer segment based on the different sources of health information trusted by the consumer. While certain sources such as the local hospital and the health insurance company might serve as credible sources of health information for the lower socioeconomic and less health-oriented consumer segment, sources such as medical universities and federal Web sites might serve as trustworthy sources for the higher socioeconomic and more health-oriented groups.