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Doctors Compete With the Web for Role as Medical Advisor

November 18, 2009 05:00 PM
by Haley A. Lovett
As access to the Internet grows, so does access to online medical information and misinformation. Some e-patients now trust the Web rather than their doctor.

Cyberchondria a Concern for Doctors

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According to the Pew Research Center, 61 percent of American adults now go online for health information, as opposed to one in four in the year 2000. 

Although the proliferation of health information on the Web can help patients approach their doctors with informed questions, there are drawbacks to having nonprofessionals reading and writing health advice on the Web. Of particular concern is a phenomenon called “cyberchondria.” Cyberchondria (as it was named in a Microsoft study earlier this year) is when an Internet user begins to think he or she is sick with a serious disease after researching mild symptoms on the Internet.

Anna Tong writes in the Sacramento Bee that the health information online has “fundamentally altered the doctor-patient relationship,” in that a doctor is no longer the only source of information for a patient. One doctor, Diane Chan, told Tong that patients who look to the Internet as their main source of advice can create additional work for doctors, and that misinformed patients require her to “convince you you don’t have a disease you think you do, and then diagnose you with the right thing.”

But Tong also points out that many doctors welcome well-informed patients, and some medical practices have set up Web sites or e-mail systems for patients to seek out advice.

Background: The different types of “e-patients”

An e-patient can be loosely defined as anyone who uses the Web to seek out medical information or advice.

A white paper from the group e-Patients.net, which promotes online research by patients, explains the different “levels” of e-patient. The “accepting” patients may do little or no research and take their doctor’s word as final. The “informed” patients let medical professionals make their diagnosis, but may go online or elsewhere to learn more about a condition. The “involved” patients are more informed and may even have disagreements about treatment with their doctor, while the “in-control” group of patients often manage their own medical care even if in opposition to a doctor’s recommendation. This group may write some of the online medical content in the form of reviews.

As of lately, an e-patient’s search for information has become more of a group experience. According to a June publication by the Pew Research Center, a little more than half of online searches for health info are done by someone other than the patient, and more than four out of 10 users read other user-written stories about medical issues.

Reference: Reliable health information

When searching for health information, the most important thing to remember is that not all Web sites are created equal. Guidelines and recommendations for doing health research on the Internet can be found in the findingDulcinea Web Guide to Health.
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