By Lisa Rapaport

(Reuters Health) - People scouring the internet for good information on neck lifts may want to talk to a doctor instead, a small study suggests.

That’s because much of the information online paints an inaccurate or incomplete picture of these cosmetic procedures that may be difficult for patients to understand, researchers report in JAMA Facial Plastic Surgery.

“No patient should make a decision to have surgery based on a website alone,” said lead study author Dr. Hani Rayess, a researcher at Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit, Michigan.

Patients should seek a plastic or facial plastic surgeon who has the right qualifications to offer treatments that may make cosmetic procedures safer or more effective, Rayess added by email.

“Often times those who treat the surgery like a fast food delivery service cannot offer or provide patient-centered results,” Rayess said.

To assess the quality of information on plastic surgery websites, researchers did a Google search for the term “neck-lift” and evaluated the first 45 results.

Most of these websites were run by private physician practices, while eight of them, or 18 percent, were sites run by academic medical centers or other sources, the study found.

Researchers scored the websites on factors such as the number of resources provided, the quality of sources used to provide information on procedures and whether content was written at a reading level that patients could easily understand.

While the quality of the sources was significantly better on websites from academic medical centers than private physician practices, researchers didn’t find meaningful differences in readability based on the type of site.

Generally, the sites required around a tenth grade reading level.

Plenty of previous research suggests that patients can struggle to understand medical information written at much higher than a fifth grade reading level based on the complexity of words used, the length of sentences and the sophistication of ideas communicated.

On the technical side, there also wasn’t a meaningful difference between sites based on whether they were run by academics or private practice physicians. To get the highest quality marks, sites needed to be viewable in multiple web browsers, link to social media and offer privacy protections, among other things.

Limitations of the study include its small sample of websites analyzed during a brief period of time, the authors note. Researchers also didn’t analyze visual elements of the websites, an aspect that can make a big impact on how well patients comprehend information.

Even so, the findings highlight how hard it can be for patients to get reliable medical information online, said Dr. Steve Dayan, a plastic surgeon in Chicago who wasn’t involved in the study.

To make the best decisions about cosmetic procedures, patients should review as many websites as they can and then seek care from a reputable physician, Dayan said by email.

“I wouldn’t rely on what a celebrity says and I don’t think just because someone is board certified they are automatically the best one for their procedure,” Dayan said.

“I would be cautious with information that is splashed on blogs and from doctors who seem too flashy and careless,” Dayan added. “Finding a physician with extensive experience in the exact procedure of interest is best.”

SOURCE: http://bit.ly/2fDc4F6 JAMA Facial Plastic Surgery, online November 3, 2016.