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Websites providing COVID-19 health information deemed ‘inadequate’ according to recent study

Published: 02 November 2020

An illustration of a coronavirus cell.

A recent study, designed to evaluate the quality of websites providing prevention and treatment information for COVID-19, has found that the majority are inadequate.

Published in BMJ Open, the study was primarily conducted and written by medical students at St George’s, University of London and Imperial College London, and supervised by researchers from the Royal Free Hospital in London.

The main findings from the study found that out of 321 websites (mostly News Services and Government/Health Department websites), the majority were of inadequate quality, with only a minority providing information on treatment as well as prevention. Websites included were from 34 different countries, with 178 being from the USA, 52 from the UK, 18 from Australia and 18 from Canada. 

The study used three well-established tools to assess the websites. The criteria for assessment included whether there were suitable levels of medical information, if sources of information, authors, dates and references were included, and the structure and readability of websites. One of the tools also considered whether the websites disclosed information related to the owner of the content and if there were any potential conflicts of interest.

After assessment, the team found that there was a distinct lack of information related to treatment of COVID-19, with only 37% of websites providing details of possible treatments for the condition. Only 23% provided information covering both prevention and treatment of the disease, requiring most people to use multiple sources to find all appropriate information.

When all criteria were taken into account, only sixteen websites scored above the 75th percentile, meaning they could be considered to be in the top 25% of information-providing websites. At the time of assessment, only two of these were from the UK, which were the Age UK website and a page on the Telegraph website.

The study acknowledges that the rate at which COVID-19 content was developed at the start of the pandemic may have limited the capacity to develop high quality information. However, the authors highlight the importance of peer-reviewed research, as well as the role of health writers in translating this for wider audiences. The study found that only 7% of “News Services” achieved high scores, flagging the need for greater scientific accuracy in news stories where possible.

Ka Siu Fan, co-first author on the paper and final year medical student at St George’s, University of London, said: “It’s important that information sources are able to bridge the gap between scientists and the public, so people can find out the information most relevant to them and act on it if needed.

“If healthcare professionals could contribute more towards the development of websites and news articles that provide health information, then this will help to prevent the spread of misinformation. Given the uncertainty and ever-changing advice during this pandemic, the results of our study highlight a very important issue to address. More needs to be done to make sure people have access to the most accurate, best available information.”

Shahi Ghani, co- first author and also a final year medical student at St George’s, added: “Through this work, it is clear to see there is a widening gap between the high quality information accessible for the general public in comparison to that which is available to academics through the internet. If a pandemic, which is able to shake the world to this level is not sufficient to narrow these gaps and inform the public, I worry what will be sufficient.”

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