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ISDS Prof. Denny Yin Co-authors Paper on Effectiveness of Online Medical Sites

By Keith Morelli

Denny Yin

TAMPA (February 14, 2020) -- In a world that is increasingly looking for answers online, the sick and injured now are relying more and more on the Internet to address their health problems. A recent survey of 1,700 American adults found that 73 percent had acquired health-related information from the Internet.

In fact, more patients consult the Internet’s medical Q&A sites as their first source to find out about their health conditions before pursuing a professional diagnosis.

“It is clear that the Internet and constantly evolving social technologies are transforming not only the health care industry,” said Denny Yin, assistant professor in the Muma College of Business’ Information Systems and Decision Sciences Department, “but also how people seek health information and knowledge.”

But do answers from Q&A sites, such as Yahoo! Answers and Quora, really help? What kinds of “wisdom” from “the crowd” provide the most value for cyber patients? Yin recently co-authored an extensive study looking at online health Q&A sites that seek to provide helpful answers to an online audience who may never see a doctor’s face.

“While a lot of people believe that the medical information they obtain online is trustworthy and of good quality, this is simply not true,” Yin said. “Instead, some answers are more helpful and valuable than others.”

The key, said Yin, is to identify and promote “helpful answers” that can benefit cyber patients and Q&A platforms relying on the “wisdom of the crowd.”

Language, in the question and answer, matters

Most assume that a helpful answer should come from the content of answer itself, Yin said. For example, answer contributors may intuitively believe that concrete answers, such as “a stethoscope,” are more relatable and credible than abstract ones, like “a medical device.” Those contributors intending to help others may frame their answers in a more concrete manner as a result.

However, Yin and his collaborators speculate that the value of answers perceived by cyber patients is not driven by answer content alone, but by how much an answer’s language aligns with the answer’s circumstances.

At medical Q&A sites, each answer addresses a specific question related to a specific disease. When readers consult an answer, their value assessment of the answer is not determined by the answer's content alone, but also by environmental cues surrounding the answer, such as signals from the question and the disease. The reason is that an answer’s question and associated disease might shape cyber patients’ mindsets as they read and make sense of the answer. For example, a reader interested in treatments of a chronic disease might develop an abstract mindset and thus prefer abstract answers to concrete answers. Yin and his collaborators propose that when an answer’s language aligns or “fits” with characteristics of the question or disease, the answer will be perceived by readers as more helpful.

Research draws on 30,000 questions and answers

To test this idea, Yin and his co-authors collected data from more than 30,000 questions and answers from the most accessed website for health information, WebMD. They found empirical support for the “fit” idea. For example, when the question was framed using concrete language (e.g., a stethoscope) or associated with an acute disease (e.g., a common cold) cyber patients prefer concrete answers. However, when the question used abstract language (e.g., a medical device) or inquired about a chronic disease (e.g., diabetes) patients prefer abstract answers.

“Most answer contributors probably hold the simplistic view that answers written in a certain way are more valuable,” Yin said, “but they should be aware of the subtle role of contextual cues in readers’ judgment of the answer’s value.”

Thus, he said, online Q&A platforms “should educate content contributors about the pitfalls of following simple formulas and the diversity of readers looking for answers of different questions.”

Because of the substantial impacts that online medical information could have on people’s health-related decisions, “a deeper understanding of people’s value judgment of such information is especially important for patients, medical institutions and society at large,” Yin concluded in the paper.

Titled “More than Words in Medical Question-and-Answer Sites: A Content–Context Congruence Perspective,” the article is co-authored with Chih-Hung Peng from the National Chengchi University in Taiwan and Han Zhang from the Georgia Institute of Technology, and it has been accepted for publication in the premium information systems journal, Information Systems Research.