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.
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.
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
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.