MD vs WebMD: Does Online Health Info Help or Hurt?

According to research from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 80 percent of Internet users (making up 59 percent of U.S. adults), look online for health information.

Sure, the ubiquity of Internet access in modern society has changed the way Americans seek out information, in general. But in the case of healthcare, the widespread online availability of medical information is both helpful and troubling.

Online Health Information Can Be Good
Patients have more tools than ever to investigate medical issues and become educated about their personal health. Increased awareness of such matters can enhance overall health literacy, which, on a grand scale, is critical to lowering U.S. healthcare costs.

Effective use of high-quality healthcare resources on the Internet by interested individuals can positively impact medical outcomes. Often, patient research opens up a more informed, intelligent dialogue between patient and provider.

In fact, in a 2010 Epocrates study, the majority of physicians surveyed said that they found the online health information patients brought with them to encounters was helpful and increased enhanced doctor-patient communication.

Vetted, trustworthy online health services, like the Mayo Clinic Symptom Checker or iTriage’s Symptom-to-Provider™ Pathway, are effective means for patients to not only investigate an issue, but learn what action should be taken to resolve it.

A friend of mine used online tools to investigate his abdominal pain. After a few mouse clicks, he was told to seek immediate medical attention. His appendix was removed just hours later. Had he not used the Internet, he might have waited until his symptoms were unbearable and his condition had far worsened.

Being proactively informed and educated about healthcare is very important for patients, and services that help them find and take the right medical action at the right time have the power to save lives. So… what’s the big downside?

Online Health Information Can Be Bad
Unfortunately, the online health information interaction model isn’t always as positive as “proactive patient wants to become better informed.” Sometimes it’s more like “hypochondriac seeks validity of the invented medical condition.”

“Ordinary consumers don’t have the training to interpret the vast amounts of medical information available online,” wrote an analyst in Euro RSCG’s 2012 trendspotting report. “Some react by worrying and bugging their physician unnecessarily.”

Others may self-diagnose or self-medicate without seeking a physician’s opinion, which can allow serious conditions to go unrecognized or mistreated. Plus, the risk of “psyching” oneself out through online searching also abounds – especially when a less-than-tech-savvy patient turns to a disreputable source.

Consider a patient who opens up a piece of mail from her gynecologist’s office that reveals abnormal Pap smear results. The letter says to call the practice, but it’s after-hours. She searches Google, finding forum discussions about painful procedures and cancer diagnoses. That could be enough to scare her out of making the phone call.

So-called “cyberchondria” takes many forms. Some also say that, on the whole, the prevalence of online health information has weakened patients’ trust in the physician’s medical authority.

If a second diagnosis opinion or alternative treatment plan is just a mouse click away, how do you know that your doctor is right about your condition and care? What’s stopping you from taking matters into your own hands?

Leverage Expertise to Your Advantage
For better or worse, the Internet, and its ever-growing mass of content, is here to stay. You can’t beat the easy access it grants your patients to online health information, but you can join it – and if you haven’t yet, you should.

The key is to become the expert outlet your patients look to for information. In the example above, consider if that letter had directed the woman to go to her gynecologist’s practice website, where she’d find an unfrightening article on the next steps to take regarding the pap test results.

Providing Internet resources on healthcare is critical to ensuring that your clinicians are perceived as the ultimate medical authority in their patients’ lives. Patients need convenient access to health information. If you don’t provide it, they can’t turn to you, and they will go to other (sometimes less reputable) sources.

Look at the wealth of helpful links, friendly blog content, and useful healthcare information provided online to patients of Women’s Care of Wisconsin for an example of what to emulate.

And during a patient encounter, resist the urge to judge or get defensive with an oversearched “cyberchondriac.”

“Don’t look at it if your expertise is being challenged,” says Erin Sharaf, clinical coordinator and a clinical instructor in the PA program at Northeastern University. “See it as an opportunity to have a discussion with the patient, to educate them, explore what they are thinking, and to understand their beliefs and concerns.”

How has your practice positioned its online health information offerings?

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