The internet has fundamentally transformed the way I practice medicine, challenging the doctor-patient relationship. I see examples of this every day, from a patient I saw the other day who sought my opinion on their online research by presenting me with a beautifully-bound notebook filled with blog clippings and reprints of news articles about treatments that promise to cure his/her disease to my providing websites to patient so that they can get a clearer understanding of their condition. Clearly, the web has bridged the information divide between patients and health professionals, empowering individuals to take charge of their own health. My role as a doctor has changed from information provider to information manager and coach — a partnership with my patients to provide context while explaining disease process and the risks and benefits of various treatments.
The rise of the internet’s role in healthcare is evident in the Latino community. According to a 2009 Pew Hispanic Center report on Hispanics and healthcare in the United States, 83 percent of U.S. Latinos obtained some information about health from television, radio, newspaper, magazines or the internet in the past year. This is particularly true for younger Latinos and well as for those with some college education. Health care information on the web is of immense size, with so many people providing advice that it is easy to get misled without guidance over the validity of content. The following are seven important tips that will help you evaluate health information from the internet and utilize it during your medical appointments.
- Always look for a reputable source of information and how recent the information was updated or obtained: Just like the expiration label on food, things change quickly in healthcare. On the internet this means trusting those health sites that are particularly useful for general medical information. Popular sites include www.cdc.gov, www.mayoclinic.com, www.NIH.gov, www.WebMD.com, www.drugs.com and countless others. Major broadcast networks have excellent health portals and archives of stories they have run on various health topics: http://www.nbcnews.com/id/3032076/ns/health/. These websites provide broad, general, helpful information that will help you deal with any number of issues or symptoms or disease related issues.
- If you are interested in a particular disease or condition, there are many specific advocacy and or medical organizations that also maintain the latest information and published clinical studies on their web sites. For cancer, the American Cancer Society www.cancer.org ; the American Heart Association for heart disease www.heart.org; and the American Academy of Neurology www.aan.com for neurological conditions are good examples. For more specific web sites dedicated to conditions that are less common, there are excellent web sites by the American Headache society www.americanheadachesociety.org , www.epilepsy.com for epilepsy and countless others. These web sites can be easily found on any search engine and will provide excellent information that might help you and your doctor with regards to important treatment decisions.
- Be careful when reading blogs. Remember that blogs and chat rooms are unfiltered forms of the internet. Just because someone had a bad experience with a drug, or a treatment miraculously helped them does not necessarily mean that will be your experience. You must heed caution when reading blogs as they can be the breeding ground for rumors and misinformation. At the same time, blogs can also serve as online emotional support and validation, yet always look for multiple perspectives and never trust just one site.
- When discussing a health study with your physician that you found on the web, be certain the study or treatment being touted actually involved people in the trials and was not an animal study. It is not infrequent to see early studies get headlines promising a big cure without any FDA approval or any human trials having been done. In a 2003 study by Mayo Clinic and Arizona State University, 20 percent of all newspaper-based stories on neurological conditions had medical inaccuracies or exaggerations.
- When seeing your doctor, it is important that you write out specific questions about the internet information you may have found. Let the doctor know at the onset of the appointment that you have questions you will be asking. Remember physicians, nurses, healthcare professionals are under time constraints; you need to be prepared with your questions so as not to overwhelm them.
- There are many excellent and reputable web sites from pharmaceutical or medical device companies that are very appropriate to utilize. However, be careful about web sites that come from companies trying to sell you something. Remember, companies have a natural bias towards promoting the more positive aspects of a drug or device rather than presenting a balanced viewpoint.
- Don’t diagnose yourself with a terminal illness based on one symptom and overload your doctor with a stack of internet printouts to prove your medical prowess. Doctors are trained to take in numerous sources of information to make a diagnosis based on a complete clinical history and thorough physical examination taking into consideration your unique health profile. You might be surprised to learn that your headache is not from a brain tumor.
Utilizing a common-sense approach when gathering health information should improve your healthcare experience and hopefully enhance your relationship with members of your healthcare team to guide you to the best care possible.
Dr. Joseph Sirven is a first-generation Cuban-American. He is Professor and Chairman of the Department of Neurology and was past Director of Education for Mayo Clinic Arizona. He is editor-in-chief of epilepsy.com and has served U.S. and global governmental agencies including the Institute of Medicine, NASA, FAA, NIH and CDC.