The Internet May Be The Worst Place For Info On Colon Cancer: Study
April 15, 2014

The Internet May Be The Worst Place For Info On Colon Cancer: Study

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

For most people surfing the Internet, information on colorectal cancer is too difficult to understand and doesn’t address the key risks of the disease and the biggest concerns that patients have, according to a study by UT Southwestern Medical Center gastroenterologists.

Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine Dr. Deepak Agrawal, the lead author of the paper, and his colleague Dr. Chenlu Tian, reviewed dozens of popular websites, finding that most of the online patient education materials on colorectal cancer screening were written well beyond a recommended sixth-grade reading level. They also found that most of the content on those sites failed to address key risks, as well as the barriers and benefits of screening.

“Today, the Internet often is the first point of contact between the patient and health-related information, even for patients with low literacy. In, thus, is a great opportunity for us to influence the decisions people make about their health and to steer them in the right direction. Informing patients is a physician’s responsibility and we take this role seriously,” said Dr. Agrawal, a gastroenterologist in the Division of Digestive & Liver Diseases at UT Southwestern.

Published in the journal Gastrointestinal Endoscopy, the study was conducted along with researchers from UT Arlington and is the first to analyze Internet-based materials based on their appropriateness and health literacy.

Colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in the US, despite effective screening tests, which include colonoscopy, sigmoidoscopy and fecal occult blood test (FOBT). The study authors believe that more appropriate and targeted patient information online could improve patient understanding and promote cancer screening. Currently, US colorectal cancer screening rates remain below target levels – the “Healthy People 2010” initiative proposed a colon cancer screening rate of at least 70.5 percent, yet screening rates remain below 50 percent for those with less than high school reading levels.

Previous research has shown that six in 10 people rely on the Internet for information about colonoscopy screening. Yet, in 10 of the 12 websites Agrawal and his colleagues reviewed, readability had surpassed the maximum recommended sixth-grade reading level; the sites reviewed in the study were mostly reputable medical society pages and had been considered likely referral sites for physicians.

In addition to being too difficult to understand, the sites also did not address key concerns, such as the risks of getting colon cancer, the chances of dying from it, and how easy it is to get screening. The review found that only half of the sites discussed colorectal cancer risk in the general population and only a quarter specifically addressed patients at high risk, such as African Americans, smokers, diabetics and those who are obese.

The sites also failed to address common barriers to screening. Agrawal and his team found that less than 10 percent of the sites addressed embarrassment, which is a common concern among patients. Also, only a quarter of the sites addressed pain associated with colonoscopy or the costs of the procedure. None of the sites specifically mentioned the need for colonoscopy when no symptoms are present.

“It is important to add that reading information on a website should not be considered a substitute for consulting a physician,” Dr. Agrawal said in a statement. “Internet information is best used as a supplement. With colon cancer screening, there are many options and each has its risks and benefits. An actual discussion with a physician would help patients choose the best option.”

Sites reviewed for the study included those of the American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy; American Gastroenterological Association; National Cancer Institute; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; American College of Gastroenterology; American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons; Colon Cancer Alliance; and the American Cancer Society.