Cauda Equina Syndrome: Assessing the Readability and Quality of Patient Information on the Internet

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Abstract

Study Design.

A readability and quality control Internet-based study using recognized quality scoring systems.

Objective.

To assess the readability and quality of Internet information relating to cauda equina syndrome accessed through common search engines.

Summary of Background Data.

Access to health-related Internet information has increased dramatically during the past decade. A significant proportion of this information has been demonstrated to be set at too high a level for general comprehension. Despite this, searching for health-related information is now the third most popular online activity.

Methods.

A total of 125 cauda equina syndrome Web sites were analyzed from the 5 most popular Internet search engines: Google, Bing, Yahoo, Ask, and AOL. Web site authorship was classified: academic, physician, medico-legal, commercial, or discussion/social media. Readability of each Web site was assessed using the Flesch Reading Ease score, the Flesch-Kincaid grade level, and the Gunning Fog Index. Quality was calculated using the DISCERN instrument and The Journal of the American Medical Association benchmark criteria. The presence of HON-code certification was also assessed.

Results.

Fifty-two individual Web sites were identified and assessed. The majority of Web sites were academic or physician compiled (53.8%; 28/52); however, a significant minority of Web sites were medico-legal related (19.2%; 10/52). Just 13.5% (7/52) of Web sites were at or below the recommended sixth-grade readability level. HON-code certified Web sites achieved significantly greater DISCERN (P = 0.0006) and The Journal of the American Medical Association (P = 0.0002) scores.

Conclusion.

Internet information relating to cauda equina syndrome is of variable quality and largely set at an inappropriate readability level. Given this variability in quality, health care providers should direct patients to known sources of reliable, readable online information. Identification of reliable sources may be aided by known markers of quality such as HON-code certification.

Conclusion.

Level of Evidence: N/A

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