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Publication Date



Background: About 6 million people search for health information on the Internet each day in the United States. Both patients and caregivers search for information about prescribed courses of treatments, unanswered questions after a visit to their providers, or diet and exercise regimens. Past literature has indicated potential challenges around quality in health information available on the Internet. However, diverse information exists on the Internet—ranging from government-initiated webpages to personal blog pages. Yet we do not fully understand the strengths and weaknesses of different types of information available on the Internet. Objective: The objective of this research was to investigate the strengths and challenges of various types of health information available online and to suggest what information sources best fit various question types. Methods: We collected questions posted to and the responses they received from an online diabetes community and classified them according to Rothwell’s classification of question types (fact, policy, or value questions). We selected 60 questions (20 each of fact, policy, and value) and the replies the questions received from the community. We then searched for responses to the same questions using a search engine and recorded the Results: Community responses answered more questions than did search results overall. Search results were most effective in answering value questions and least effective in answering policy questions. Community responses answered questions across question types at an equivalent rate, but most answered policy questions and the least answered fact questions. Value questions were most answered by community responses, but some of these answers provided by the community were incorrect. Fact question search results were the most clinically valid. Conclusions: The Internet is a prevalent source of health information for people. The information quality people encounter online can have a large impact on them. We present what kinds of questions people ask online and the advantages and disadvantages of various information sources in getting answers to those questions. This study contributes to addressing people’s online health information needs.

Author Supplied Keywords

Health communication, Online health communities, Question types classification, Self-management, Health-related Internet behavior use, Risk of misinformation, Internet, Diabetes


Information behavior; Information literacy; Information retrieval; Internet

Publication Information

Journal of Medical Internet Research, 2016, Volume 18, Issue 4, 1-13.

© 2016 The Authors.

Archived version is the final published version.





Document Type

Journal Article