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AAIC Press Release

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Alzheimer's Association®  |  Media line: 312.335.4078  |  E-mail: media@alz.org  |
AAIC 2013 press room, July 13-18: 617.954.3414

Most Online Tests for Alzheimer's Disease Fail on Scientific Validity, Reliability and Ethical Factors

BOSTON, July 15, 2013 – An expert panel found that 16 freely accessible online tests for Alzheimer's disease scored poorly on scales of overall scientific validity, reliability and ethical factors, according to new data reported today at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference® 2013 (AAIC® 2013) in Boston.

"As many as 80 percent of Internet users, including a growing proportion of older adults, seek health information and diagnoses online," said Julie Robillard, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at the National Core for Neuroethics at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, who presented the data at AAIC 2013.

"Self-diagnosis behavior in particular is increasingly popular online, and freely accessible quizzes that call themselves ‘tests' for Alzheimer's are available on the Internet. However, little is known about the scientific validity and reliability of these offerings and ethics-related factors including research and commercial conflict of interest, confidentiality and consent. Frankly, what we found online was distressing and potentially harmful," Robillard added.

According to the Alzheimer's Association 2013 Alzheimer's Disease Facts and Figures report, more than 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer's disease. By 2050, the number of people with Alzheimer's could reach 13.8 million. Other estimates suggest that number could be high as 16 million.

"The number of people with Alzheimer's is projected to rise significantly as more and more people age into greater risk for developing the disease," said Maria Carrillo, Ph.D., Alzheimer's Association vice president of medical and scientific Relations. "Especially in that context, active promotion of healthy aging is a priority for the Alzheimer's Association, as is the delivery of accurate, reliable and ethical information and services."

Alzheimer's disease is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States and is the only leading cause of death without a way to prevent, cure or even slow its progression.

Robillard and colleagues at the University of British Columbia used information-mining techniques to retrieve 16 online tests for Alzheimer disease. Unique monthly visitors for the parent sites hosting the online tests ranged from 800 to 8.8 million.

A panel of experts including geriatricians, human-computer interaction specialists, neuropsychologists and neuroethicists reviewed the tests, specifically evaluating the scientific validity and reliability of the assessments, their human-computer interaction features and ethics-related factors. The tests were evaluated on a scale from 1 (very poor) to 10 (excellent).

The researchers found that most of the tests (12 of 16) scored "poor" or "very poor" for overall scientific validity and reliability. These tests "are not useful for the diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease," Robillard said.

All 16 tests scored "poor" or "very poor" on the evaluation criteria for ethical factors. According to Robillard, ethical issues with the tests included overly dense or absent confidentiality and privacy policies, failure to disclose commercial conflicts of interests, failure to meet the stated scope of the test and failure to word the test outcomes in an appropriate and ethical manner.

The majority of tests (10 of the 16) scored "fair" for appropriateness of human-computer interface for an older adult population. According to the researchers, this suggests that the visual aspects of the tests and the motor tasks required would be suitable for older users.

"Freely accessible diagnostic tests that lack scientific validity and conform poorly to guidelines around consent, conflict of interest and other ethical considerations have the potential to harm a vulnerable population and negatively impact their health," Robillard said. "Further evidence and informed policy are needed to promote the greatest benefits from tools and information available on the Internet."

Some examples of evaluation criteria used by the expert panel were:

About AAIC

The Alzheimer's Association International Conference (AAIC) is the world's largest conference of its kind, bringing together researchers from around the world to report and discuss groundbreaking research and information on the cause, diagnosis, treatment and prevention of Alzheimer's disease and related disorders. As a part of the Alzheimer's Association's research program, AAIC serves as a catalyst for generating new knowledge about dementia and fostering a vital, collegial research community.

About the Alzheimer's Association

The Alzheimer's Association is the world's leading voluntary health organization in Alzheimer care, support and research. Our mission is to eliminate Alzheimer's disease through the advancement of research; to provide and enhance care and support for all affected; and to reduce the risk of dementia through the promotion of brain health. Our vision is a world without Alzheimer's. Visit www.alz.org or call 800.272.3900.

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Proposal ID: 37488
Topic: Public Health and Psychosocial
Subtopic: Psychosocial; Technology
Presentation: Oral session, Monday, July 15, 2013, 4:45-5:00 p.m. ET (O2-12-04)

Scientific Validity and Ethics of Freely Accessible Online Tests for Alzheimer Disease

Presenting author: Julie Robillard , Julie Robillard1, Claudia Jacova2, B. Lynn Beattie3, Judy Illes4 1University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada; 2The University of British Columbia (UBC), Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada; 3UBC, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada; 4National Core for Neuroethics, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

Background: North American demographics are rapidly shifting towards an increasing number of older adults, and the prevalence of Alzheimer disease is projected to rise significantly. The active promotion of empowered, healthy aging is a priority. Communication of health information through online sources is widespread, easily accessible and sought by a large proportion of adults. Self-diagnosis behavior in particular is increasingly popular online, and freely accessible tests for Alzheimer disease are available on the Internet. Little is known about the scientific validity and reliability of these tests and ethics-related factors including research and commercial conflict of interest, confidentiality and consent.

Methods: To address this knowledge gap, we used information-mining techniques to retrieve 16 online tests for Alzheimer disease and used content analysis to establish the characteristics of each test. We then conducted an expert panel review of each of the tests using five-point Likert Scales (1: very poor, 2: poor, 3: fair, 4: good, 5: excellent) to evaluate scientific validity and reliability, appropriateness of human-computer interaction features and ethics-related factors.

Results: We found that most online tests for AD (12/16) scored low (very poor or poor) for overall scientific validity and reliability. In terms of appropriateness of the human-computer interface for an older adult population, the majority of tests (10/16) scored fair across all criteria. The scores for ethics-associated factors were the lowest — over all criteria evaluated, a majority of tests scored very poor (9/16), and the remainder (7/16) scored poor.

Conclusions: Overall, the scientific quality of freely accessible tests online is low and these tests conform poorly to conventional guidelines around consent, conflict of interest and other ethical considerations. These findings have significant implications for the growing computer-literate older adult population. The issues uncovered suggest that further evidence and informed policy are needed to promote the greatest benefits from tools and information available on the Internet.

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Make history at AAIC 2013 • Boston, MA • July 13-18, 2013