As a medical reporter, I'm keenly aware that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Just last month, in fact, I misdiagnosed my husband's athlete's foot as a raging bacterial infection. While I usually rely on expert interviews for my ad hoc practice of medicine, most people nowadays turn to health websites. Research shows that nearly half of all breast cancer patients, for example, depend on the Internet to help guide their treatment decisions: Mammography or lumpectomy? Which chemotherapy drug to prevent recurrence? How much radiation?
Sites offering guidance on breast cancer are accurate about 95 percent of the time, according to a study published online today in the journal Cancer. But it's hard to tell which ones contain inaccurate information. One indicator: Those focused on alternative or complementary health remedies were more than 15 times as likely to contain gross errors. Study leader Elmer Bernstam of the University of Texas Health Science Center reads me some examples from two alternative-medicine sites:
- But the truth is, if you have the chemo you will die.
- One of the leading causes of breast cancer is antiperspirants and deodorants.
"Do you want more? I have more," he says. I ask him to instead name some sites breast cancer patients can really rely upon. He named these three:
"What about websites from the leading cancer centers?" I ask him, noting that he failed to mention M.D. Anderson's website, where his study coauthor and wife, Funda Meric-Bernstam, is affiliated. He tells me that these institutions have a hard time keeping their websites updated, so the information may be several months or years behind the state-of-the-art treatment being administered there. Meric-Bernstam agrees. "Breast cancer care is evolving so fast," she says. "So much has changed over the past five years with regards to surgery, diagnosis, and preventative chemotherapy." A previous study she conducted found that fewer than half of breast cancer websites had been updated over the past six months and even those that were updated often didn't contain the most current information.
If you've been diagnosed with breast cancer, have you found any websites that have helped you make an informed treatment decision? Have you found any that have been misleading? Please add your comments.