Comparative healthcare information on the Internet not easy to use

Consumers prompted with websites that provide comparative healthcare information were often overwhelmed by the amount of information presented and had difficulties understanding the information. However, they also wanted to have more information, for instance from other sources than the Internet, according to a study by researchers of NIVEL in BMC Public Health.

NIVEL performed a qualitative study on how consumers interpret and evaluate comparative healthcare information on the Internet. Consumers were confronted with different existing websites and were asked to ‘think aloud’ while viewing this information. In addition, the researchers assessed how consumers made hypothetical choices between health plans or healthcare providers. In general, people quickly attributed importance to the presented quality indicators to reduce their choice set to indicators relevant for them. It was striking that many consumers wanted to have more information, while they also felt overwhelmed by the amount of information already presented. Furthermore, the aspects considered important by consumers were not automatically weighted in their decisions, a finding also demonstrated in other studies. 

To make a well-informed decision, consumers wanted to have both different types of information and information from different sources. Besides information from the Internet, information from family practitioners and health insurers, own experiences and the experiences of family and friends, and the image of healthcare providers were considered important sources.
Consumers found it hard to understand the meaning of several quality indicators and text on the websites, which is also in line with findings from previous studies. Concepts like “restitution and in-kind reimbursement” and “quality indicators” were poorly interpreted. In addition, star ratings and global ratings were difficult to understand. Therefore, the researchers advocate rigorous pretesting among consumers before this kind of information is disclosed to the public.

NIVEL-researcher Olga Damman: “The chances that consumers will quit viewing comparative healthcare information increase when the information is not carefully pretested. We would advise to assess which parts of the information are actually weighted in consumers’ decisions, and to present only those parts. Otherwise, the amount of information quickly becomes overwhelming.”