The Role of Web-Based Health Information in Help-Seeking Behavior Prior to a Diagnosis of Lung Cancer: A Mixed-Methods Study

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Background: Delays to diagnosis in lung cancer can lead to reduced chance of survival, and patients often wait for several months before presenting symptoms. The time between first symptom recognition until diagnosis has been theorized into three intervals: symptom appraisal, help-seeking, and diagnostic interval (here: “pathway to diagnosis”). Interventions are needed to reduce delays to diagnosis in lung cancer. The Web has become an important lay health
information source and could potentially play a role in this pathway to diagnosis.

Objective: Our overall aim was to gain a preliminary insight into whether Web-based information plays a role in the pathway to diagnosis in lung cancer in order to assess whether it may be possible to leverage this information source to reduce delays to diagnosis.

Methods: Patients diagnosed with lung cancer in the 6 months before study entry completed a survey about whether (and how, if yes) they had used the Web to appraise their condition prior to diagnosis. Based on survey responses, we purposively sampled patients and their next-of-kin for semistructured interviews (24 interviews; 33 participants). Interview data were analyzed qualitatively using Framework Analysis in the context of the pathway to diagnosis model.

Results: A total of 113 patients completed the survey (age: mean 67.0, SD 8.8 years). In all, 20.4% (23/113) reported they or next-of-kin had researched their condition online before the diagnosis. The majority of searches (20/23, 87.0%) were conducted by or with the help of next-of-kin. Interview results suggest that patients and next-of-kin perceived an impact of the information found online on all three intervals in the time to diagnosis. In the appraisal interval, participants used online information to evaluate symptoms and possible causes. In the help-seeking interval, the Web was used to inform the decision of whether to present to health services. In the diagnostic interval, it was used to evaluate health care professionals’ advice, to support requests for further investigation of symptoms, and to understand medical jargon. Within this interval, we identified two distinct subintervals (before/after relevant diagnostic tests were initiated), in which the Web reportedly played different roles.

Conclusions: Because only 20.4% of the sample reported prediagnosis Web searches, it seems the role of the Web before diagnosis of lung cancer is at present still limited, but this proportion is likely to increase in the future, when barriers such as unfamiliarity with technology and unwillingness to be informed about one’s own health are likely to decrease. Participants’ perceptions suggest that the Web can have an impact on all three intervals in the pathway to diagnosis. Thus, the Web may hold the potential to reduce delays in the diagnostic process, and this should be explored in future research and interventions. Our results also suggest a division of the diagnostic interval into two subintervals may be useful.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere189
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 8 Jun 2017


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