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Paving the way for peer-to-peer health advice

Using the web to seek out answers to health questions for you or your family is now common place. Many people will first consult a website about their health concerns before going to see a doctor.  The popularity of health websites it is just down to the rise of social media. In 2007 the publication of what was then ground-breaking research from Northumbria University, made a big impact on the future development of health websites in the UK and in Europe.

The research team based at Northumbria’s Psychology department, and led by Professor Pam Briggs, applied its knowledge from an earlier research project about consumer trust in e-commerce websites to explore trust in health websites. At the time the received wisdom in the health industry was that patients would trust health material only if it came from ‘reputable’ sources such as drug companies, physicians or government.

Northumbria’s research findings were the first to turn this on its head and show that in fact trust in a health websites was much more aligned with the amount of content from contributors who shared similar experiences to the individual: people were more inclined to trust health information if it was accompanied with the views and experiences of like-minded others, rather than just being information from professional sources.

The research showed that from the patient’s perspective only organisations deemed ‘impartial’ could generate trust, so advice from drug companies would be regarded with scepticism even it was subject to strict legal control. The research was pioneering at the time and was soon picked up by the pharmaceutical industries, charities and the NHS, who revised their website and patient support materials accordingly.

The research team continues to provide advice and to work with a wide range of different organisations in the public, private and third sector on how best to create engaging on-line health content.  They are working with the Oxford-based health charity, DIPex, which provides patient experience websites, developing a new framework for patient engagement and a new set of web-design guidelines around peer-to-peer healthcare.


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