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Context: Despite the substantial amount of health-related information available on the Internet, little is known about the accessibility, quality, and reading grade level of that health information. Objective: To evaluate health information on breast cancer, depression, obesity, and childhood asthma available through English- and Spanish-language search engines and Web sites. Design And Setting: Three unique studies were performed from July 2000 through December 2000. Accessibility of 14 search engines was assessed using a structured search experiment. Quality of 25 health Web sites and content provided by 1 search engine was evaluated by 34 physicians using structured implicit review (interrater reliability >0.90). The reading grade level of text selected for structured implicit review was established using the Fry Readability Graph method. Main Outcome Measures: For the accessibility study, proportion of links leading to relevant content; for quality, coverage and accuracy of key clinical elements; and grade level reading formulas. Results: Less than one quarter of the search engine's first pages of links led to relevant content (20% of English and 12% of Spanish). On average, 45% of the clinical elements on English- and 22% on Spanish-language Web sites were more than minimally covered and completely accurate and 24% of the clinical elements on English- and 53% on Spanish-language Web sites were not covered at all. All English and 86% of Spanish Web sites required high school level or greater reading ability. Conclusion: Accessing health information using search engines and simple search terms is not efficient. Coverage of key information on English- and Spanish-language Web sites is poor and inconsistent, although the accuracy of the information provided is generally good. High reading levels are required to comprehend Web-based health information.

Originally published in: Journal of the American Medical Association, v. 285, no. 20, May 23/30, 2001, pp. 2612-2621.

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