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In Online Health Content We Trust?

Late last week, Susannah Fox of the Pew Internet & American Life project announced
that the nonprofit had updated its statistics on the number of adult Americans using the Internet. Currently, 73 percent are Web users.  Of this group, three-quarters have looked for health or medical information online. Fox notes that regardless of whether the number of online health searchers increases or decreases from year to year, “Internet users are doing something [and] the horse is out of the barn.”  The growing power of the Internet has generated enthusiasm in some and dismay in others. It has also exacerbated long-standing tensions between patients and medical professionals –- especially physicians. For example, in a famous Time magazine essay, Dr. Scott Haig admonished some medical “Googlers” for possessing a wealth of information, but lacking the expertise to interpret it correctly.   

In addition, some are also concerned that technologies like
blogs, wikis and social networks are increasing in popularity. Not
only are people misinterpreting journal articles, they argue, but they
are also exposed to potentially inaccurate content developed by
patients, caregivers and others on a regular basis. 

Of course, many violently disagree with these assertions, including some readers of this blog. Given the intensity of what Fox calls
the “Internet wars,” it is vitally important that we understand how the
Web is influencing patient decision-making and trust in traditional
sources of health information, including physicians. 

Over the past decade, there have been several studies examining this topic. Most recently, iCrossing published research
indicating that while the Internet is popular, the Web is not widely
trusted by most consumers. In fact, iCrossing found that most still
view physicians as their most credible source of health information. 

However,
the rise of the social Web has raised new questions. Most importantly,
how do Americans view patient-generated online content? It is
appropriate for us to assume most readers hold it in high regard? 

Last month, my firm Envision Solutions commissioned a national online survey
to provide some answers to these important questions. Among many
topics, we examined whether Americans view patient-generated content as
one of their most trusted health information sources. The verdict:
most – except the young – do not. 

Yet, credibility may be
influenced by who is authoring the content. Thirteen percent of
Americans say they would consult medical professional-developed
information posted on blogs, online forums or other Websites first if they believed they had a health condition or disease.
We also found (somewhat unsurprisingly) that the Internet is having
an impact on patient-provider relations. Nearly 40 percent of Americans say
they have doubted a medical professional’s opinion or diagnosis because
it conflicted with information they found online.

So, what
does this all mean? Well, now we have some evidence that the Internet
“horse” is far from the wildly bucking animal some believe it to be.
Instead of allowing the Web to take them for a ride, many Americans are
carefully looking at who is writing content on blogs, online forums and
other Websites. We also found that experts still have a great deal of
influence online. Overall, the young are most trusting of
patient-generated content. 

Finally, it would be a mistake to
dismiss user-generated content and social technologies based on the
results of this study. These resources are important, even if they are
not yet in the mainstream.    

Fard Johnmar is founder of healthcare marketing communications consultancy Envision Solutions, LLC. He also writes about social technologies, health and other topics on the popular blog HealthCareVox

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5 replies »

  1. I am not surprised that doctors are “concerned” about the information on the Internet and the possibility it may cause improper decision making on the part of patients. But I think it would be disingenuous on the part those doctors to act as though their concern was for the patient’s care only. I suspect they are concerned with the impact this may have on their livelihood also.
    As someone who has had more interaction with doctors that I would have liked (diabetes, cancer, heart disease) I have learned some things as a patient that I think are important to express in a discussion, such as this. First, the number one person who is responsible for a patient’s care is the patient.
    No one needs to have as much information available to them as possible more than the patient. The Internet in my humble opinion is just another tool of information gathering for the patient to assist them in making an informed decision. I am not sure if there are statistics related to this, but I would be interested to see what the diagnosis or survival rate is of patients who own their care as oppose to those who trust the doctors wholeheartedly. Let us not forget that a person who completely trusts what their doctor tells them is also at risk for mis-diagnosis although probably not as much as a person who makes a decision about their health solely based on information online. Second, an over-informed patient is far better than an under-informed or doctor only informed patient any day.
    Instead of doctors complaining about the information presented to them from the Internet. They should develop skills to make a case for why the information is incorrect and make the case for why a patient should follow their advice. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if doctors could help us sort through this information as oppose to complaining about it. Heaven forbid a doctor would have to do anything on a $100 plus doctor’s visit other than ask us how we are doing, take our blood pressure, temperature, listen to our hearts and send us on our merry way. Third, gone are the days of Dr. Welby.
    The days of doctor-patient relationships being one of family friend who watched our kids grow up, delivered them and made house calls. The current health care situation virtually makes that impossible. Today’s doctors are service providers whose relationships are more with corporate health care organizations than the patients they service, so they need to the vetted, surveyed, reviewed with the same level, no scratch that, with an even greater scrutiny than we have do with anything else in our lives.
    Finally, my personal example. When I was diagnosed with prostate cancer the doctor who did my biopsy didn’t even call me to inform me. He said he was doing a lot of biopsies and couldn’t remember who I was when he got my results. I never went back to him again. I got on the Internet and between crying about my diagnosis (yeah, I cried like a baby) and being pissed at cancer I developed a dossier on prostate cancer almost 200 pages long. I went to my primary care physician and he recommended one thing. My urologist recommended something else. I went to multiple cancer centers and talked to a lot of people who had the disease, family and friends. I took all of that information and made my decision. I finally went with what one of the doctors said. I say that because I don’t want to give the impression that I do not think doctors are important. The information he gave me saved my life and it wasn’t medical information either. I have been cancer free for close to five years and I am in the best shape of my life despite all of the health challenges I expressed earlier, but it wasn’t solely because of what a doctor told me or any particular information I got online. It was the cumulative effect of all of the information I got.
    The number one thing I think impacts a person’s ability to overcome a health challenge is the mental state of the patient. If a patient is fearful about their disease it will impact their ability to combat it. One of the critical factors involved in most patients fear when they are diagnosed with cancer or any other disease for that matter is the unknown.
    If doctors want patients to look less to the Internet for information I suggest they do a better job of providing it as oppose to crying about where we are getting it. Until then I think patient provided information online should be added to any informed patient’s list of information resources/tools when making a decision about their health.

  2. I would think that patient-generated content such as ratings and comments about the care they’ve received would be deemed pretty reliable, especially in aggregate form.
    I’m curious what others think about websites that provide this service such as http://www.WhereToFindCare.com.

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