Many consumers use the Internet to find information about their medicines. It is widely acknowledged that health information on the Internet is of variable quality and therefore the search and appraisal skills of consumers are important for selecting and assessing this information. The way consumers choose and evaluate information on medicines on the Internet is important because it has been shown that written information on medicines can influence consumer attitudes to and use of medicines.
To explore consumer experiences in searching for and appraising Internet-based information on medicines.
Six focus groups (N = 46 participants) were conducted in metropolitan Sydney, Australia from March to May 2003 with consumers who had used the Internet for information on medicines. Verbatim transcripts of the group discussions were analyzed using a grounded theory approach.
All participants reported using a search engine to find information on medicines. Choice of search engine was determined by factors such as the workplace or educational environments, or suggestions by family or friends. Some participants found information solely by typing the medicine name (drug or brand name) into the search engine, while others searched using broader terms. Search skills ranged widely from more-advanced (using quotation marks and phrases) to less-than-optimal (such as typing in questions and full sentences). Many participants selected information from the first page of search results by looking for keywords and descriptions in the search results, and by looking for the source of the information as apparent in the URL. Opinions on credible sources of information on medicines varied with some participants regarding information by pharmaceutical companies as the "official" information on a medicine, and others preferring what they considered to be impartial sources such as governments, organizations, and educational institutions. It was clear that although most participants were skeptical of trusting information on the Internet, they had not paid conscious attention to how they selected information on medicines. Despite this, it was evident that participants viewed the Internet as an important source for information on medicines.
The results showed that there was a range of search and appraisal skills among participants, with many reporting a limited awareness of how they found and evaluated Internet-based information on medicines. Poor interpretation of written information on medicines has been shown to lead to anxiety and poor compliance to therapy. This issue is more important for Internet-based information since it is not subject to quality control and standardization as is written information on medicines. Therefore, there is a need for promoting consumer search and appraisal skills when using this information. Educating consumers in how to find and interpret Internet-based information on medicines may help them use their medicines in a safer and more-effective way.