Today, the Internet provides access to an unprecedented amount of information. While this can be invaluable for those searching for a new pot roast recipe or DIY videos on how to fix a leaky faucet, it’s not such a good thing for patients looking for information about diabetic retinopathy (DR), according to new research. As is true of almost everything online, no standard exists regarding the accuracy or quality of the information your patients are digging up with an Internet search for DR. Researchers recently analyzed 11 websites on the disease and concluded that freely available information online about DR varies by source and is generally of low quality. Even the websites you might recommend as informative, while of good quality, can be difficult for a patient to read.

The study, published in JAMA Ophthalmology, analyzed the content, quality and readability of commonly used medical websites using numerous measures, such as the journal’s four benchmarks (authorship, attributions, disclosure and currency), a 26-question survey and reading ease score.

No website met all four benchmarks, and the mean survey score for all websites was only 55.76 of 104 possible points. Wikipedia received the highest score of all 11 websites, with a mean score of 76.67. Although Wikipedia is more informative than other sites, researchers still noted that it’s not an ideal reference for patients. The mean reading ease score across the 11 websites was equivalent to an 11th-grade reading level, suggesting the material was difficult to read and exceeds the recommended reading level for health information—the Department of Health and Human Services guidelines suggest a sixth-grade reading level. Also, the study found no correlation between the content quality of a website and its rank in Google searches, suggesting that patients shouldn’t use this metric to gauge the information’s reliability.

Most websites reviewed did not provide sufficient information to support the patient in making medical decisions. Also, websites made to educate practitioners may present information that could not be useable or actionable for patients, as they were not the authors’ intended audience. The researchers concluded that the readability results, poor content quality and the lack of accountability displayed by most websites on DR indicate that practitioners should counsel patients on online health information–seeking behavior.

Klooserterboer A, Yannuzzi NA, Patel NA, et al. Assessment of the quality, content and readability of freely available online information for patients regarding diabetic retinopathy. JAMA Ophthalmol. August 22, 2019. [Epub ahead of print].