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Proton therapy for prostate cancer online: patient education or marketing?
Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, Springfield, Illinois, USA
Dec  2013 (Vol.  20, Issue  6, Pages( 7015 - 7020)
PMID: 24331342


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    Proton therapy (PT) for prostate cancer is an expensive treatment with limited evidence of benefit over conventional radiotherapy. We sought to study whether online information on PT for prostate cancer was balanced and whether the website source influenced the content presented.


    We applied a systematic search process to identify 270 weblinks associated with PT for prostate cancer, categorized the websites by source, and filtered the results to 50 websites using predetermined criteria. We then used a customized version of the DISCERN instrument, a validated tool for assessing the quality of consumer health information, to evaluate the remaining websites for balance of content and description of risks, benefits and uncertainty.


    Depending on the search engine and key word used, proton center websites (PCWs) made up 10%-47% of the first 30 encountered links. In comparison, websites from academic and nonacademic medical centers without ownership stake in proton centers appeared much less frequently as a search result (0%-3%). PCWs scored lower on DISCERN questions compared to other sources for being balanced/unbiased (p < 0.001), mentioning areas of uncertainty (p < 0.001), and describing risks of PT (p < 0.001). PCWs scored higher for describing the benefits of treatment (p = 0.003).


    Patients should be aware that online information regarding PT for prostate cancer may represent marketing by proton centers rather than comprehensive and unbiased patient education. An awareness of these results will also better prepare clinicians to address the potential biases of patients with prostate cancer who search the Internet for health information.