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Open Access Research article

Assessment of the quality and variability of health information on chronic pain websites using the DISCERN instrument

Jatin Kaicker1, Victoria Borg Debono1, Wilfred Dang1, Norman Buckley1 and Lehana Thabane23*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Anesthesia, Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine, McMaster University, 2U1-1200 Main Street West, Hamilton, Ontario, L8N 3Z5, Canada

2 Department of Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics, McMaster University, 1200 Main Street West, Hamilton, Ontario, L8N 3Z5, Canada

3 Biostatistics Unit, Father Sean O'Sullivan Research Centre, 3rd Floor Martha, Room H325, St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton, 50 Charlton Avenue East, Hamilton, Ontario, L8N 4A6 Canada

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BMC Medicine 2010, 8:59  doi:10.1186/1741-7015-8-59

Published: 12 October 2010



The Internet is used increasingly by providers as a tool for disseminating pain-related health information and by patients as a resource about health conditions and treatment options. However, health information on the Internet remains unregulated and varies in quality, accuracy and readability. The objective of this study was to determine the quality of pain websites, and explain variability in quality and readability between pain websites.


Five key terms (pain, chronic pain, back pain, arthritis, and fibromyalgia) were entered into the Google, Yahoo and MSN search engines. Websites were assessed using the DISCERN instrument as a quality index. Grade level readability ratings were assessed using the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Algorithm. Univariate (using alpha = 0.20) and multivariable regression (using alpha = 0.05) analyses were used to explain the variability in DISCERN scores and grade level readability using potential for commercial gain, health related seals of approval, language(s) and multimedia features as independent variables.


A total of 300 websites were assessed, 21 excluded in accordance with the exclusion criteria and 110 duplicate websites, leaving 161 unique sites. About 6.8% (11/161 websites) of the websites offered patients' commercial products for their pain condition, 36.0% (58/161 websites) had a health related seal of approval, 75.8% (122/161 websites) presented information in English only and 40.4% (65/161 websites) offered an interactive multimedia experience. In assessing the quality of the unique websites, of a maximum score of 80, the overall average DISCERN Score was 55.9 (13.6) and readability (grade level) of 10.9 (3.9). The multivariable regressions demonstrated that website seals of approval (P = 0.015) and potential for commercial gain (P = 0.189) were contributing factors to higher DISCERN scores, while seals of approval (P = 0.168) and interactive multimedia (P = 0.244) contributed to lower grade level readability, as indicated by estimates of the beta coefficients.


The overall quality of pain websites is moderate, with some shortcomings. Websites that scored high using the DISCERN questionnaire contained health related seals of approval and provided commercial solutions for pain related conditions while those with low readability levels offered interactive multimedia options and have been endorsed by health seals.