How to utilize the internet for health information

From booking appointments and procedures online, to filling prescriptions with a single click, and researching physicians, more and more people are relying on the internet for their health care needs. Perhaps the most significant shift in the way that patients use the internet, however, is in seeking out health and medical information.

According to some recent estimates, nearly 75% of adults with internet access use computers to research disease-specific information; medications, treatments, or procedures; or nutrition and exercise. While the wealth of medical information available online is helping to forge new doctor-patient relationships and provides great benefit to patients, there are some important considerations to keep in mind.

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The benefits

Increased access to health information not only creates patients who are better informed but has also been shown to improve quality of care. Consumers who regularly consult reputable internet sources of health information have been proven to have shorter office visits with their doctors, more frequent non-emergency phone consultations, and fewer and shorter hospital stays.

Before visiting the doctor, patients are able to quickly research symptoms, available treatments, alternative therapies, or read up on their condition. This helps patients feel more confident and engaged as advocates for their own health. Patients can even research and compare physicians through any one of a number of ranking and review sites.

After the appointment, internet health research makes it easy for a patient to look up answers to questions that they may have forgotten or been too embarrassed to ask the doctor.

Many patients who use the internet to research health information say that doing so is an important part of taking care of their health. One small study found that patients in a family practice whose doctor gave them access to health education websites reported that the information provided was helpful and made them feel empowered and able to make changes to improve their health. Nearly all the patients surveyed said that they were more satisfied with their office visit overall thanks to this access to information.

Through social networking, online support groups, patient-centered websites, and blogs, patients and caregivers struggling with chronic disease, long-term illness, or mental health issues gain entry to a community of others who understand their challenges. These groups allow people to share their experiences, get insight on specific health conditions, and find even more resources related to their particular area of concern. Sharing in these communities can also reduce patients’ and caregivers’ feelings of loneliness, depression, and isolation, which can be common side effects of serious illness or long-term caregiving.

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The challenges

There is significant evidence to suggest that improved patient education through online research is a good thing. However, there are very serious considerations to be made in any discussion of online health-care research.

First and foremost, there are issues of privacy, especially in cases where information is being provided to patients directly from their doctor. Physicians must be able to assure patients that any information shared online will be kept confidential.

A second challenge is disparity of internet access. In many communities, internet service remains unreliable ? and sometimes non-existent ? for many consumers. These patients need to be educated on how to access and evaluate reliable information online.

This leads to the final and most important difficulty with patients researching health information online. The sheer volume and relative anonymity of information available on the internet means that not all health sites are created equal. Patients seeking information are often vulnerable and may not be in a position to judge information critically and objectively; they are willing to accept as truth anything they read that gives them a sense of hope. On the other hand, many patients are overly skeptical of anything they read online and often aren’t sure which sources they can trust.

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The importance of good information

How can patients determine if a website is credible? A legitimate site will:

  • Clearly display who is responsible for the information posted.
  • Clearly identify authors or original sources of information, including photos (Dreamstime.com has a large supply of stock photos), charts, tables, and articles.
  • Clearly state the medical credentials and qualifications of anyone who has authored, reviewed, or prepared the information.
  • Clearly explain exactly how any personal or confidential patient information will be handled.

 

Ultimately, physicians and patients must work together to ensure that any research conducted online is accurate and reliable. Patients should feel comfortable presenting their online health research to their doctor, and doctors should be willing to help patients evaluate and discuss these findings honestly.

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