Last week, the Apple a Day blog discussed the ways people use online resources to seek out information on a given condition. This week, the British Journal of General Practice (BJGP) has shed fresh light on the subject with a study analysing the experiences of patients who have sought medical information online.
The study found that patients often felt that being equipped with information gained online had helped to strengthen and improve their relationship with their GP. However, some patients feared that their GP had felt undermined while others were concerned that their GP disregarded their knowledge and concerns. Ultimately, the opinion of healthcare professionals was still found to be the most trusted and valued source of information.
Understanding precisely how patients use online resources for health information is still in its infancy – the BJGP report was based on interviews with just 26 participants – although it certainly seems clear that the internet is having a significant impact. A larger US study from earlier this year found that mistrust of medical professionals did not increase the likelihood of patients seeking information online. Nonetheless, some medical professionals have been reluctant to engage with the information patients have gained online and some have even coined a slightly condescending phrase to describe the perceived problem: “cybercondria”.
The internet is only as reliable as the plethora information posted on it, and health advice obtained online is often determined by users’ ability to discern what is and isn’t reliable. For many young people who have grown up with the internet – often termed ‘digital natives – this process is far more simple. However, those who lack internet experience will often have difficulty separating the wheat from the chaff.It is therefore incumbent on those working in the healthcare sector both to help provide authoritative, reliable information and to engage openly with users’ online research. As well argued in Time magazine last year, healthcare professionals themselves need to learn about patients healthcare browsing habits and sources of online health information if they are to redirect these efforts rather than dismiss them out-of-hand.