A study found online reviews into health products are very misleading
Experts at the University of Aberdeen discovered that customer reviews on shopping websites, such as Amazon, do not provide an accurate reflection of the actual benefits of products.
In the first study to compare clinical trial data with user-generated online reviews, psychologist Dr Mícheál de Barra examined more than 1,600 online reviews of weight loss pills and high cholesterol treatments on Amazon.
He found the reviews portrayed the products in a far more positive light than clinical trial data would suggest.
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The reputation as described in these reviews is much more positive than the clinical trial data show
Dr Mícheál de Barra
The specialist discovered that the average drop in cholesterol using Benecol was more than three times larger in Amazon reviews than found in carefully controlled trials.
Similarly, reviewers on weight loss pill Orlistat lost about twice as much (14kg) as those in clinical trials (7kg).
Dr de Barra, who has an interest in historical and contemporary inaccurate medical beliefs, said: “These treatments are not entirely ineffective. However, what we show is that the reputation as described in these reviews is much more positive than the clinical trial data show."
Experts at the University of Aberdeen discovered that customer reviews are not accurate
The psychologist said exaggerated reviews were not a deliberate attempt to mislead but were a result of a bias towards sharing positive outcomes rather than negative.
He continued: “Only some people who try a treatment will then go on to tell other people about their experience. However, this subset of people are usually only those who have good outcomes.
“So you hear a friend of yours had a good result using a treatment of some kind, and you think, ‘well, maybe this works’.
“Your friend is probably not lying but the problem is people with average or poor outcomes don’t tend to share their experiences. This means you get a positively skewed view of the treatment.”
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Dr de Barra urged consumers to be careful when considering reviews of health products.
He added: “We should be cautious about using reviews like these when deciding about health choices.
These narratives have a powerful influence on our own future health behaviour because they provide simple and clear anecdotes.
“But this study shows that they can be very misleading.
“These results also shine a new light on medical overuse, the use of treatments that are unnecessary and ineffective.
Exaggerated reviews are a result of a bias towards sharing positive outcomes rather than negative
“Medical overuse is estimated to cost $226billion in the US, and patient demand for medicines with limited value is one important cause.
“This study shows how a demand for ineffective medicines can easily develop when people rely on hearsay and narratives alone.
“It is ridiculous to think that every health decision will be informed by systematic reviews. People have lives to lead. This study shows, though, that it’s important to be aware of the biases that can make informally acquired information unreliable.”
The study was published in the journal Social Science & Medicine.
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