Health information on the Internet, with respect to common, self-limited childhood illnesses, has been found to be unreliable. Therefore, parents navigating on the Internet risk finding advice that is incomplete or, more importantly, not evidence-based. The importance that a resource such as the Internet as a source of quality health information for consumers should, however, be taken into consideration. For this reason, studies need to be performed regarding the quality of material provided. Various strategies have been proposed that would allow parents to distinguish trustworthy web documents from unreliable ones. One of these strategies is the use of a checklist for the appraisal of web pages based on their technical aspects.
The purpose of this study was to assess the quality of information present on the Internet regarding the home management of cough in children and to examine the applicability of a checklist strategy that would allow consumers to select more trustworthy web pages.
The Internet was searched for web pages regarding the home treatment of cough in children with the use of different search engines. Medline and the Cochrane database were searched for available evidence concerning the management of cough in children. Three checklists were created to assess different aspects of the web documents. The first checklist was designed to allow for a technical appraisal of the web pages and was based on components such as the name of the author and references used. The second was constructed to examine the completeness of the health information contained in the documents, such as causes and mechanism of cough, and pharmacological and nonpharmacological treatment. The third checklist assessed the quality of the information by measuring it against a gold standard document. This document was created by combining the policy statement issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics regarding the pharmacological treatment of cough in children with the guide of the World Health Organization on drugs for children. For each checklist, the web page contents were analyzed and quantitative measurements were assigned.
Of the 19 web pages identified, 9 explained the purpose and/or mechanism of cough and 14 the causes. The most frequently mentioned pharmacological treatments were single-ingredient suppressant preparations, followed by single-ingredient expectorants. Dextromethorphan was the most commonly referred to suppressant and guaifenesin the most common expectorant. No documents discouraged the use of suppressants, although 4 of the 10 web documents that addressed expectorants discouraged their use. Sixteen web pages addressed nonpharmacological treatment, 14 of which suggested exposure to a humid environment and/or extra fluid.
In most cases, the criteria in the technical appraisal checklist were not present in the web documents; moreover, 2 web pages did not provide any of the items. Regarding content completeness, 3 web pages satisfied all the requirements considered in the checklist and 2 documents did not meet any of the criteria. Of the 3 web pages that scored highest in technical aspect, 2 also supplied complete information. No relationship was found, however, between the technical aspect and the content completeness. Concerning the quality of the health information supplied, 10 pages received a negative score because they contained more incorrect than correct information, and 1 web page received a high score. This document was 1 of the 2 that also scored high in technical aspect and content completeness. No relationship was found, however, among quality of information, technical aspect, and content completeness.
As the results of this study show, a parent navigating the Internet for information on the home management of cough in children will no doubt find incorrect advice among the search results. The checklist method proposed by researchers in the field to allow lay people to select web documents of presumably higher quality is not proven to be reliable. No standards currently exist for publishing health information on the Internet; therefore, a web page cannot be expected to provide extra information that could be associated to the quality of content of the page. Because the lack of uniformity when dealing with web documents does not allow for any type of assessment based on structural components, any method for judging the trustworthiness of web documents, therefore, must base its selection directly on content.
So far, the most reliable sources of information accessible to the public remain medical professionals and information packets peer-reviewed by them. The Internet holds enormous possibilities for the future of on-line health care; however, at present, it should be used as an additional, not as a primary, source of information. New strategies must be found of producing, validating, and diffusing appropriate on-line information in a manner that involves users (consumers) to guarantee a nonauthoritarian practice, access for all to health care information, and high quality information on the Internet.