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PLoS One. 2013;8(3):e59963. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0059963. Epub 2013 Mar 26.

Analysis of free online physician advice services.

Author information

  • 1Department of Computer Science, Ben-Gurion University, Beer-Sheva, Israel. cohenrap@bgu.ac.il

Abstract

BACKGROUND:

Online Consumer Health websites are a major source of information for patients worldwide. We focus on another modality, online physician advice. We aim to evaluate and compare the freely available online expert physicians' advice in different countries, its scope and the type of content provided.

SETTING:

Using automated methods for information retrieval and analysis, we compared consumer health portals from the US, Canada, the UK and Israel (WebMD,NetDoctor,AskTheDoctor and BeOK). The evaluated content was generated between 2002 and 2011.

RESULTS:

We analyzed the different sites, looking at the distribution of questions in the various health topics, answer lengths and content type. Answers could be categorized into longer broad-educational answers versus shorter patient-specific ones, with different physicians having personal preferences as to answer type. The Israeli website BeOK, providing 10 times the number of answers than in the other three health portals, supplied answers that are shorter on average than in the other websites. Response times in these sites may be rapid with 32% of the WebMD answers and 64% of the BeOK answers provided in less than 24 hours. The voluntary contribution model used by BeOK and WebMD enables generation of large numbers of physician expert answers at low cost, providing 50,000 and 3,500 answers per year, respectively.

CONCLUSIONS:

Unlike health information in online databases or advice and support in patient-forums, online physician advice provides qualified specialists' responses directly relevant to the questions asked. Our analysis showed that high numbers of expert answers could be generated in a timely fashion using a voluntary model. The length of answers varied significantly between the internet sites. Longer answers were associated with educational content while short answers were associated with patient-specific content. Standard site-specific guidelines for expert answers will allow for more desirable content (educational content) or better throughput (patient-specific content).

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