Adherence of Internet-Based Cancer Risk Assessment Tools to Best Practices in Risk Communication: Content Analysis

Erika A. Waters, Jeremy L. Foust, Laura D. Scherer, Amy McQueen, Jennifer M. Taber

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


Background: Internet-based risk assessment tools offer a potential avenue for people to learn about their cancer risk and adopt risk-reducing behaviors. However, little is known about whether internet-based risk assessment tools adhere to scientific evidence for what constitutes good risk communication strategies. Furthermore, their quality may vary from a user experience perspective. Objective: This study aims to understand the extent to which current best practices in risk communication have been applied to internet-based cancer risk assessment tools. Methods: We conducted a search on August 6, 2019, to identify websites that provided personalized assessments of cancer risk or the likelihood of developing cancer. Each website (N=39) was coded according to standardized criteria and focused on 3 categories: General website characteristics, accessibility and credibility, and risk communication formats and strategies. Results: Some best practices in risk communication were more frequently adhered to by websites. First, we found that undefined medical terminology was widespread, impeding comprehension for those with limited health literacy. For example, 90% (35/39) of websites included technical language that the general public may find difficult to understand, yet only 23% (9/39) indicated that medical professionals were their intended audience. Second, websites lacked sufficient information for users to determine the credibility of the risk assessment, making it difficult to judge the scientific validity of their risk. For instance, only 59% (23/39) of websites referenced the scientific model used to calculate the user's cancer risk. Third, practices known to foster unbiased risk comprehension, such as adding qualitative labels to quantitative numbers, were used by only 15% (6/39) of websites. Conclusions: Limitations in risk communication strategies used by internet-based cancer risk assessment tools were common. By observing best practices, these tools could limit confusion and cultivate understanding to help people make informed decisions and motivate people to engage in risk-reducing behaviors.

Original languageEnglish
Article number23318
JournalJournal of medical Internet research
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2021


  • Health communication
  • Internet
  • Personalized medicine
  • Risk assessment


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