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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Can Emergency Medicine Residents Reliably Use the Internet to Answer Clinical Questions?


Introduction: The study objective was to determine the accuracy of answers to clinical questions by emergency medicine (EM) residents conducting Internet searches by using Google. Emergency physicians commonly turn to outside resources to answer clinical questions that arise in the emergency department (ED). Internet access in the ED has supplanted textbooks for references because it is perceived as being more up to date. Although Google is the most widely used general Internet search engine, it is not medically oriented and merely provides links to other sources. Users must judge the reliability of the information obtained on the links. We frequently observed EM faculty and residents using Google rather than medicine-specific databases to seek answers to clinical questions. Methods: Two EM faculties developed a clinically oriented test for residents to take without the use of any outside aid. They were instructed to answer each question only if they were confident enough of their answer to implement it in a patient-care situation. Questions marked as unsure or answered incorrectly were used to construct a second test for each subject. On the second test, they were instructed to use Google as a resource to find links that contained answers. Results: Thirty-three residents participated. The means for the initial test were 32% correct, 28% incorrect, and 40% unsure. On the Google test, the mean for correct answers was 59%; 33% of answers were incorrect and 8% were unsure. Conclusion: EM residents’ ability to answer clinical questions correctly by using Web sites from Google searches was poor. More concerning was that unsure answers decreased, whereas incorrect answers increased. The Internet appears to have given the residents a false sense of security in their answers. Innovations, such as Internet access in the ED, should be studied carefully before being accepted as reliable tools for teaching clinical decision making. [West J Emerg Med. 2011;12(4):442–447.]

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