The effects of the information superhighway – the internet – are felt in every area of modern life. When faced with a question to which they don’t have an answer, people will immediately google it. The information-at-your-fingertips culture has infiltrated even complex scientific and medical fields.
The Pew Research Center cites 72% of Americans as using the internet for medical and health information. The internet is an innovative communication system that has changed clinical and medical practices and patients’ behavior and experiences.
Types of Medical Information Sought on the Internet
People seek health information for a variety of reasons:
• Locate and choose a new doctor
• Educate oneself about own or a family member’s diagnosis
• Reduce anxiety about a personal health condition
• Understand different health problems
• Gain access to emotional and social support
• Prepare for appointments
• Obtain clarification about issues or questions raised during consultations
• Determine whether they need to see a doctor for particular symptoms
• Get updates on latest health news and developments
Cyberchondria is a term that describes a condition in which people excessively search the internet for health information and become anxious due to the results they find.
Cyberchondriacs are the “worried well” – those who are healthy but have googled the odd symptom and end up at their primary care physician’s office armed with internet evidence, convinced they have a life-threatening disease. They are costing millions in unnecessary doctor appointments and tests.
The Reliability of Online Medical Information
This independent pursuit of medical information online is empowering and enlightening, but also a matter for concern. Doctors are worried about the consequences of blindly following internet medical advice, especially when it comes to self-diagnoses, treatment, and the decision to “be one’s own doctor.”
A study in the Patient Education and Counseling journal interviewed patients and physicians regarding online health information. Both reported the following three challenges.
• Contradictory information
• Complex information
• Information overload
Too often the medical advice and direction found online increases a person’s anxiety and confusion rather than providing relief.
What is the Solution?
Using the internet to gain information is a fact of life, and technology will continue to permeate our lives in many more ways. It is the wise doctor and patient who accepts this and looks for ways to improve the process and mutually benefit from it.
Doctor-patient consultations need to integrate online information. Patients need to learn how to search, collect, and organize the information they obtain from the most reliable sources.
The infrastructure in doctor’s offices needs to catch up with technology and embrace it too, as in the future more and more medical transactions are likely to be technology-based.
There needs to be open, honest, two-way communication and a trusting relationship between doctor and patient. The patient should not be embarrassed or hesitant to tell their doctor that they have gone online for information, and the doctor should be open and encouraging during discussions.
Doctors and patients should be able to discuss information and ideas from websites and online forums in a considerate and critical manner.
In fact, doctors can use the internet to have more productive discussions and as a teaching tool for patients. Doctors are well-qualified to question, analyze, and verify information from the internet and help patients through their medical journeys. Together the doctor and the patient can make the right decisions.
Tips for Patients
Bring the information you find to your doctor, along with details of the source and questions or observations you have, including how and why you think it might help in your treatment. This is especially important when discussing complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapies such as yoga or meditation.
Acknowledge that the doctor is the expert. They have spent years honing their expertise and ultimately they know best. You can bring your information and research to their attention and have an intelligent, productive conversation. Doing so results in greater satisfaction for both the patient and the doctor.
Finding Reliable Health Information Online
While wading through the minefield that the internet can be, it’s important to access websites in which the information has been written or vetted by medical professionals.
These websites work hard to provide unbiased and balanced information, backed by evidence-based medicine and clinical practice. Yet you must understand that even this professional and mostly accurate information is for information purposes only and not intended for making a diagnosis.
How to Conduct a “Healthy” Internet Search:
- Ignore the wider internet. Commercial (“dot com”) sites are often biased and full of conflicts of interest.
- U.S. government health and medical information websites, such as MedlinePlus.gov; not-for-profit health or medical organizations, such as the American Cancer Society (cancer.org); and university medical centers, such as Joslin Diabetes Center (joslin.org) are the most reliable resources on the internet.
- Sites dedicated to specific diseases and conditions listed by the Medical Library Association on cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and so on may offer reliable information.
- The red and blue “HONcode” seal at the bottom of each web page indicates the site is credible and certified by the Health On the Net Foundation.
- The information should be current or less than three years old. Health information changes all the time.
- Check the credentials of the author, who should be a health professional.
- The Community Health Library illustrates how to evaluate health web sites and suggests sources of quality health information.