Feb. 27, 2001 -- Women seeking information on breast augmentation might save some time by talking with their doctors rather than relying on content found on the web. That is the conclusion of a group of researchers from Cooper Hospital University Medical Center in Camden, N.J. Their study appears in the January issue of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery.
The researchers, all medical doctors, evaluated a number of web sites by using three popular search engines -- Yahoo, AOL, and Excite -- to search for the phrase "breast augmentation." They came up with 41 individual sites. Only a small fraction of these sites discussed in any detail possible complications of the surgery, however, and most had a bias toward a particular technique. A group of three experienced plastic surgeons evaluated the sites but found they could only recommend 15% of them to their patients.
Seventeen health-related web sites, including WebMD, also were evaluated. Surprisingly, not one of these sites, in the opinion of the three surgeons, provided complete and accurate information on surgical breast augmentation. While the information wasn't necessarily bad, it proved in some cases to be hard to find. In others, primarily due to the nature of the search engines, information was irrelevant -- for example, many of the "hits" within these sites were dedicated to breast cancer, instead of breast augmentation. Some of the news links provided were useless -- others, even humorous. In one case, patients could click for information on chicken breasts!
"What we found was that [if a] somewhat Internet-savvy [person] typed in 'breast augmentation,' what she would get, to a large extent, would not be particularly useful," says co-author Martha S. Matthews, MD. "There are some good sites out there, but it's tough [to find them]."
Not that the doctors are condemning the web. "I think it is worth the time to go through the search engines and look for the top sites suggested," says lead author Julian B. Gordon, MD. "What was most useful to me was to see photographs. Most of these showed positive outcomes, but they did show possibly what can happen. I think it helps people see what can be done. Everyone doesn't have access to textbooks of plastic surgery, so I do not think it's a waste of time."
Both doctors say that patients who have read up on breast augmentation on the web can be some of their most informed. But they worry that authorship of the sites is not always easy to identify. Some may have been run by private physicians who have more of a commercial, rather than academic, interest in the subject. In fact, most of the 41 sites evaluated by the plastic surgeon team were "physician" sites -- and, at the time they were reviewed, none of these showed any "bad outcome" photographs. Others may have been run by "anti" organizations, which can raise unscientific fears about the procedure.
What it all comes down to, they say, is that the final information provider ought to be the patient's doctor. "I think for any medical problem, you're taking a risk by relying on a particular medium for your decision," Matthews says. "Part of medical care is the act of seeing patients."
"Unfortunately, it is a common misconception with consumers that if you can find it on the Internet, it must be true," says Gilbert Ross, MD, medical director for the American Council on Science and Health, a consumer education consortium concerned with issues related to food, nutrition, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, lifestyle, the environment, and health. "As you know, it takes very little to set up a web site."
Ross's advice for choosing a good source: "When a site is sponsored by a reliable organization, that gives you a good head start. Certainly, sites by the National Cancer Institute, the Mayo Clinic, Harvard Medical School, are better to be relied upon. But if you don't know who is responsible for a web site, you're playing Russian roulette with your health."