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The number and use of health websites have grown enormously in recent years. UvA doctoral candidate Minh Hao Nguyen has investigated the importance of these websites specifically to older patients with cancer. Good information can increase involvement with health and care, help with decision-making, reduce anxiety and improve quality of life. How can we optimise online health information for cancer patients accordingly?

Online health information on tablet

Due to visual/auditory and cognitive decline, limited computer experience and lacking personalisation of health websites, older patients may be less motivated or able to use online health information and run the risk of communicating less effectively with their healthcare providers. They may be less capable of preparing for medical consultations and may ask fewer questions or remember less information as a result, for example.

How can we improve online health information?

In her doctoral research, Minh Hao Nguyen focused on how we could improve online health information for older patients with cancer in order to help them communicate effectively with healthcare providers. As a result of the aforementioned visual/auditory and cognitive decline, older adults may differ from younger adults in terms of their presentation preferences for online information.

'Do customised websites make it easier for patients to remember information, both from the sites that they visit and from their medical consultations?'

Nguyen examined whether it would help to tailor the presentation format of websites and allow users to set their own textual, visual or audio-visual preferences: does this option increase patient satisfaction with the websites and their preparation, does it reduce their fear, can they ask better questions, and can we identify differences between younger and older patients in this respect?

Increased patients satisfaction with customised website 

Nguyen investigated the effect of health websites using two experimental studies among younger and older adults as well as two field studies among younger and older cancer patients. A total of over 1200 people participated in these studies. Some of the respondents were shown a customised website which allowed them to personalise the presentation format according to their own preferences. The other respondents were shown a standard website. Nguyen analysed the effectiveness of customised websites versus standard websites and arrived at the following conclusions:

  • customised websites lead to greater motivation and an increased ability to process the information;
  • both younger and older adults are more satisfied with a customised website;
  • older adults pay more attention to the customised website and can therefore remember more information;
  • younger adults remember more information from standard websites;
  • online health information (customised and standard) in preparation for hospital visits leads to improved health-related outcomes (such as the improved ability to remember information) in both older and younger patients;
  • younger patients are more satisfied with the customised website and feel less anxious after a medical consultation, compared with patients who are shown a standard website;
  • older patients appreciate the chance to configure their own personal preferences, which allows them to absorb the information in a more measured way; however, this option has no effect on the outcome of a medical consultation (positive or negative).

A message for intervention designers

Nguyen shows in her research that adapting online health information to personal preferences is a promising strategy for optimising the effectiveness of this information for cancer patients, regardless of their age. As a result, the outcomes of the research are relevant to communication scientists and intervention designers when developing online health information that is effective for patients in the digital age.

About Minh Hao Nguyen

Minh Hao Nguyen conducted her research in the Communication Science Department at the University of Amsterdam and is to obtain her doctorate degree on 25 April. A symposium on this theme will be organised on 23 April, entitled 'Gezondheid in Beeld: De rol van visuele communicatie' ['A picture of health: The role of visual communication']. Entrance is free to the symposium, whose purpose is to share knowledge on this topic between practice and science. Nguyen is now working as a researcher at the University of Z├╝rich.

The study was financed by the Dutch Cancer Society (KWF Kankerbestrijding) and conducted in cooperation with Amsterdam UMC.