Cancer Risk Web Sites Put to Test by Ohio State Researchers

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Web sites that use family medical history to help estimate a person's risk of developing cancer should be improved to reach a more diverse audience and should take a more comprehensive view of family cancer history, according to a recent study by Ohio State University cancer researchers.

The study, published in a recent issue of Clinical Genetics, offers several suggestions on how to improve these online tools to make them more effective.

"Online cancer risk assessment tools should take a more integrated approach to disease assessment, including risk for multiple types of cancer and other diseases, as well as integrating hereditary risk," says first author Kimberly M. Kelly, assistant professor in the department of molecular virology, immunology and cancer genetics at Ohio State University Medical Center and a member of Ohio State's Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Kelly collaborated with co-author Kevin Sweet, a cancer genetic counselor at Ohio State to evaluate five online cancer risk assessment tools found by using a popular search engine. They recommend that online risk assessments should try to reach a more diverse audience, including underserved populations and those with lower general health and computer literacy. The tools should also become more culturally-appropriate by including multiple languages.

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Each tool was assessed for general content and types of risk assessments. Each also was evaluated for results generated based on two case histories that should have indicated an elevated cancer risk. Some did not accurately provide cancer risk assessments. The tools were also evaluated for readability, authoritativeness, purpose, privacy, references, justification, contact, funding, advertising, strengths and limitations.

The study found all five sites to be helpful, but some were more limited than others in assessing risk based on age, gender, family history and types of cancer. Most sites offer a simple, easy-to-use test that can be completed in 1 to 10 minutes, depending on the amount of personal and family medical history required.

"When deciding which type of online risk assessment tool to use, look for sites that are run by medical institutions, are easy to read and ask detailed questions," Kelly says. "A hereditary cancer assessment should ask for the number of family members that are affected, the types of cancer they have and the age of onset because those are all risk factors for developing cancer."

Physicians don't have time during routine checkups to take detailed family medical histories for patients and assess their risk for familial cancer or hereditary cancer syndromes, Kelly says.

"This is one of the values of the online tools," she says. Kelly recommends that patients talk to their doctors about their online risk assessment results, particularly if they are identified as high risk.

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