July 17, 2012

Doctors and Online Medical Information

Many people go online to learn about their medical condition. Does it mean they mistrust their human doctor?

Many patients may go online for help understanding their medical conditions – but it doesn’t mean they don’t trust their doctors. A new study from UC Davis finds that doctor mistrust does not predict whether patients will look to the Internet for a better understanding of their conditions. It may just mean that they want to be better informed about them, and benefit from the experiences of others in the same boat.

'Many people go online to get information when they anticipate a challenge in their life. It makes sense that they would do the same when dealing with a health issue.'

According to the new study, about 70% of patients polled said that they were planning to ask their doctors about information they’d found on the Internet. Half of patients said they planned on making specific requests based on this information. And some 40% of patients had printed out what they found on the web to take with them to their appointment.

But despite rising concerns about a flawed U.S. healthcare system, patients did not look online because they lacked faith in their doctors. Instead it was just to learn more about their condition, especially when they believed it was going to be long term or when it was more serious. Patients who felt they had some degree of control over their illnesses were also more likely to educate themselves online.

Coauthor Xinyi Hu says that she and her team did not anticipate the results, but they suggest “that doctors need not be defensive when their patients come to their appointments armed with information taken from the Internet.” 

On the contrary, she says, the “Internet has become a mainstream source of information about health and other issues. Many people go online to get information when they anticipate a challenge in their life. It makes sense that they would do the same when dealing with a health issue.”

So it seems that doctors who might be thrown by their patients’ increasing knowledge about medicine don’t need to worry. The Internet has surely changed the game when it comes to doctor-patient interaction, but in reality, as coauthor Richard L. Kravitz says, “these results provide some degree of reassurance. The results mean that patients are not turning to the Internet out of mistrust; more likely, Internet users are curious information seekers who are just trying to learn as much as they can before their visit.”

If you do use the Internet to learn about your health, make sure to use a trusted site, where the information is thoroughly vetted and backed by medical professionals. Hospital and university sites are generally good bets, but nothing beats the knowledge of a real doctor, who can answer specific questions based on your personal history and current condition.

The study was published in the Journal of Health Communication.

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