What are the benefits and risks involved in using the Internet for health information and resources?
Whenever I attend medical meetings, I often hear doctors sharing war stories of patients who bring in thick piles of computer printouts from the Internet.
From the doctors' viewpoint, if they don't take the time to read the articles, their patients may be upset. On the other hand, most doctors don't have (or won't take) the time to enter into what they see as long discussions about potentially false or misleading information. They've seen more than one patient who believes, "If it's on the Internet, it must be true!"
Doctors, more than most any other group, know how much bad medical and health information is disseminated via the Internet. As a result, I've had more than one person tell me that their doctor has strictly advised them not to search for information on the Internet.
A recent medical report lists about 100 studies that attempted to rate the accuracy and completeness of health information on the World Wide Web. Ratings ranged from about 15 percent to 85 percent. In one survey of people seeking health care information on the Internet, 82 percent reported they were concerned about getting online health information from an unreliable source.
Fortunately, you can reduce that worry by following a few basic guidelines:
1. Rarely visit just a single Web site and never make snap decisions based on what you find. 2. Avoid search engines and depend on a number of trusted sites from which you can begin your research.
HOW TO CHOOSE THE BEST SITES
Here are some important factors to consider when you're looking for medical information online:
There is a big difference between a site that states, "I developed this site after finding a cure for cancer that doctors are hiding from you" and one that says, "This page on cancer was developed by health professionals at the American Cancer Society."
Is this the only site making these claims? Beware of claims that one remedy will cure a variety of illnesses, that it is a "breakthrough," or that it relies on a "secret ingredient."
There are many excellent, medically reliable, evidence-based Web sites that are invaluable for my patients (and for me). Informed health consumers who know and understand their treatment options and the risk, benefits and costs of those options, tend to:
RESPECTED HEALTH SOURCES
The following is a list and description of some of my favorite sites:
MORE PATIENT HELP IS COMING
Recent surveys at the Pew Internet and American Life Project revealed some striking data about adults from the United States who had gone online for health information:
Of those who found health information online, 94 percent said it was either "very easy" or "somewhat easy." And of the 37 percent who discussed the results of their searches with a health professional, a small minority said that their health professional disagreed with the information they found online.
Choosing an online health information resource is like choosing your doctor—you simply wouldn't go to just any doctor and you may get opinions from several doctors.
More and more people are going to become Internet active and there will be more and more patient-centered online support networks and tools for people to use. These tools will equip, empower and enable you to become the health care quarterback of your and your family's health—that's good.
Having an excellent coach—your family's personal physician—is critical. But when it comes to the stewardship of the temple of the Holy Spirit, that obligation, responsibility and opportunity should rest in your hands.
Doctors who continue to believe that their patients are inherently incapable of navigating the plentiful health resources of the Internet will find their net-savvy patients leaving them for other doctors.
By contrast, those wise and caring doctors who realize that they have just as much to learn from their patients, as the patients have to learn from them will (and should) become the physicians of choice for most health care consumers.
Walt Larimore, M.D., is one of America's best-known Christian family physicians. He is the author of God's Design for the Highly Healthy Person (Zondervan), from which portions of this article were adapted. Visit www.DrWalt.com for more information on this subject and many other health-related topics.
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