The Internet revolutionized the way we search for information as well as how we conduct business in our everyday lives. Everything can be purchased online: cars, clothes, groceries, vacation packages. Just about anything. Most people now research products before committing to them, and that now includes health care. It is estimated that 87 percent of adults in the U.S. use the Internet. Approximately 72 percent of Internet users seek health information online.
So, where do patients search for online health care information?
- Nearly 77 percent of those seeking online health information began their quest with a search engine such as Yahoo, Google, etc.
- Approximately 13 percent began their search on a site that specializes in health information, such as WebMD.
- Only 1 percent started their search on a social network site such as Facebook.
- According to a Pew Research survey, 63 percent of online health seekers were looking for information about specific diseases or medical problems.
- According to the same survey, 47 percent were looking for information about a specific treatment or medical procedure. Additionally, 44 percent searched diet information, and 36 percent were looking for information about exercise and fitness.
There are a multitude of sites that discuss health care information. Just because a site brands themselves as health care experts doesn’t mean that they actually are. Patients need to be educated consumers, but this knowledge must be correct. In the health care space, wrong information can be quite dangerous. Sites that label themselves as offering medical information need to stay consistent with evidence-based medicine. Many times, this may not be clear to patients. And medical experts should be involved in the site to keep it aligned to safe medical practices. If that is missing for a site, that site should be avoided.
Many hospitals now have an online presence and offer health-related information. While these may be great sources of medical information, I have found many of them not to be updated as often as other sites. Also, when they start offering a new service, a multitude of new “information” is poured out about that new procedure.
Patients don’t always share with their doctor what information they discovered online. In fact, according to a study conducted by the NCBI (National Center for Biotechnology Information), 59 percent of those seeking out health information online did not discuss it with their physicians. Those who did share the information with their doctors rated the information they found online higher than those who did not share. Another 11 percent reported that they used the online health information in place of seeing their doctors.
Several studies and surveys indicate that women tend to search health information more frequently than men. Those doing online searches also tended to have higher socioeconomic and educational levels. Many people conducting these searches are often doing it on behalf of another person rather than themselves, such as a spouse, child, etc. It is interesting to note that those sites that asked for payment to access their information found very few people willing to pay for it.
Health care providers need to know that our patients are learning health care information on the Internet. And that is a good thing. Medical knowledge is expanding at the rate of a big bang explosion and the more knowledge patients possess, the easier it is to discuss their medical conditions with them. But, we need sites that cater to true medical facts and not self-promotion. If we want patients to be empowered, we must make sites that are patient-centric. And, there must be some type of evaluation measures to guide patients to those sites that are committed to their medical well-being.
Linda Girgis is a family physician who blogs at Dr. Linda.
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