Where do you go to obtain information about health-related issues? Advances in technology have created opportunities for individuals to independently access vast amounts of medical information. Is this access good for consumers and the health care industry? Can you trust the information that you find on the internet? Is the information current?
Wolters Kluwer Health, a global publisher of medical textbooks and reference materials, has conducted numerous studies about the impact of online medical information on consumer health practices. Both consumers and physicians see value in the increased availability of medical information. A study in 2012 found that 67% of respondents reported that easy access to medical information online has made them better informed as patients, while a separate study of physicians in 2011 reported that only 12% of physicians believed that online access to medical information impeded the quality of care they provide.
The level of trust that consumers have for online medical information is determined in part by age. The Journal of the American Medical Association published a study in 2005 which demonstrated that, compared to people age 65 and older, adults aged 18-34 were more than 10 times as likely, and adults aged 35-64 were more than 5 times as likely, to express either “a lot” or “some” trust in online information.
To assist older consumers in locating and utilizing up-to-date and reliable medical information online, the National Institute on Aging has published a pamphlet containing tips for evaluating websites and the information they contain (www.nia.nih.gov). Following is a summary of some of these tips:
- Determine the sponsor of the website. The address of the website will provide a clue about whether the organization is a government agency (.gov), an educational institution (.edu), a nonprofit (.org) or a commercial enterprise (.com).
- Is contact information for the sponsor available somewhere on the site?
- Is the author(s) identified? Information written by an individual based on personal experience should be evaluated differently from that of a professional in the particular field. Does the author cite research to support data or claims that are made?
- Look for a date that the information was published, or when the web page was last updated. Is it recent?
- Are there other websites that contain similar information?
Done correctly, the advantages to researching medical information online prior to a physician visit are that you can be prepared to more effectively identify and communicate your symptoms, ask appropriate questions, and have a better understanding of the disease process and treatment options. Data from the 2012 Wolters Kluwer study revealed that after going online to self-diagnose an illness, the majority of respondents among all age groups (77%) did report following-up with a physician. Older adults were the highest percentage of respondents (53%) who reported they would never rely on the internet to diagnose or treat an illness.
The principles guiding the location of reliable online information can apply to other subjects besides medical information. But, just as with information heard on television, radio, or from friends; or read in a newspaper or magazine; a wise consumer will carefully process and evaluate the information and not just accept it at face value. SYMS Corporation, a NJ based chain of clothing stores which operated from 1958-2011, utilized the slogan “An Educated Consumer is Our Best Customer.” Viewed wisely, the internet can provide a free and easily accessible starting point for answering health related questions, but it shouldn’t become a substitute for a relationship with a primary care physician.
Karen Kaslow, RN