Finding Health Information Online

More than ever before individuals have begun turning to the Internet for health-related information, including information about specific conditions and medications. Though the wealth of information online allows patients the opportunity to be better informed and take a more active role in their care, not all information comes from reliable sources. While individuals should be encouraged to become informed about issues that affect their health and well-being, it is also important to ensure that they are able to identify information that is from a credible source.

The United Nations (UN) reports that approximately 1.8 billion people worldwide are now using the Internet. A recent survey which included over 12,000 individuals in 12 nations, found that individuals are looking online for health-related information more frequently than in previous years. Globally, 81 percent of individuals with Internet access use it to search for advice about health, medicines, or medical conditions. A reported 80 percent of Americans look online at least some of the time for health information, frequently to find information about a specific disease, a treatment procedure, or exercise and fitness. Nearly half of all Americans looking for health information online are attempting to self-diagnose a condition based on symptoms they are experiencing.

While some experts endorse the use of the Internet for patient self-education as it allows patients to play a more active role in their care, they stress the importance of verifying health information found online. A recent report from the London School of Economics indicates that the amount of health information available online is abundant, and its accessibility is increasing as personal computers, tablets, and smartphones become more common. David McDaid, senior research fellow at the London School of Economics, notes that only a reported one in four people validate the sources of information posted online. Further, Dr. Karthik Murugiah, author of a recent study on the use of YouTube to provide information on CPR techniques, states that without some type of verification of credentials of an individual posting health-related information online, there is a “risk of dissemination of incorrect information.” While some government and health-related organizations and medical associations do put information online, it is sometimes difficult for patients to separate these posts from less credible information when searching online.

Findings of another recent study show that a typical health-related search produced a list of 93 links, only about one-third of which were “relevant.” According to Eric Horvit an artificial intelligence researcher at Microsoft Research, “People tend to look at just the first couple results” of a Web search, resulting in what experts have termed “cyberchondria.” Dr. Brett Taylor, an emergency department pediatrician at the IWK Health Center in Helifax, notes that “Misinformation travels along exactly the same social pathways as accurate, useful knowledge.” Echoing this point, Dr. Jan Maurer, Vice President and Medical Director of Health Dialog, “Increased and easier access to online health information creates a double-edged sword,” as there is a benefit to the wide and varied health information available online, however it must be carefully scrutinized.

By helping patients to learn where to find credible health information, physicians can guide patients to more valuable search results. While some sites provide diagnostic tools which can be problematic if used improperly, others provide information that patients can access after they have received a diagnosis from their physician. There is a benefit to be seen by allowing patients to become better informed, and thus more involved in their healthcare decisions, provided steps are taken to insure that information is credible.

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