Posted 6/28/2012 by UNMC Physicians
It’s understandable. If patients have itchy rashes or throbbing leg aches, the Internet is a convenient way to find health information before visiting a healthcare professional for relief. They use online search engines like Google to find ways to see if they can self-diagnose or find ways to relieve the pain. Parents of a colicky newborn are no different. At 2 a.m., after hours of listening to their baby cry, parents want answers, and they want them fast.
According to a study by Pew Internet
, 80 percent of American Internet users research health topics on the Internet. Not surprisingly, women, especially care givers, are most likely to access online health information. As the primary decision makers in the household, women use the Internet to look for treatments to symptoms affecting their family.
“One of the most common diseases that my patients try to find treatments for on the Web is diabetes," said William Hay, MD, family medicine, Baker Place clinic.
“They read about alternative ways to relieve hypertension and other diabetes symptoms that may or may not work.”
Pew Internet reports that the underserved population, specifically the lower income minorities, primarily use mobile phones to access health information via the Internet. Searches by these groups, including the elderly and those with disabilities, may be limited based on accessibility and education.
“Some patients at Baker Place do not have computers or have the means to go to the library, so they aren’t doing thorough searches and taking the time to find fact-based information on the Internet,” said Hay.
Treatments are also sometimes perceived incorrectly by elderly patients who use the Internet for health advice. Diane Hendricks, a social worker at the geriatric clinic, recently worked with a patient who rubbed large amounts of coconut oil all over herself on a daily basis because she read online that it helps with dementia. Hendricks said that it's important to talk with her patients about the things they have read on the Internet.
“When patients self-diagnose or treat themselves with alternative medicines, our providers educate them on the validity of the diagnosis and offer proven treatment options,” Hendricks said.
Medications are another area where people sometimes flock to on the Internet. Linda Farho, PharmaD, a pharmacist for the geriatric assessment clinic, indicates that the risk for drug interactions increases with the number of medications a patient is taking.
“The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports the average number of medications for those 65 years of age and older is five,” Farho said. “Some patients may need more than that and others may need fewer. The right number depends on the individual patient.”
Patients accessing the web to search for information related to a condition or disease can sometimes run across sites developed by pharmaceutical companies that benefit from providing drug information as it could lead to patients trying their treatments or medications. Sometimes a patient will view information on the Internet and not pay attention to the author or source of the content.
One strategy pharmaceutical companies are using is engaging potential customers through social media.
Lately ads have been placed on common websites such as www.webmd.com
and on social media blogs, You Tube and Facebook, to engage all Internet users through common language and situations or conditions they can easily relate to, incorporating the drug or treatment.
Throughout June, the first video that populated on You Tube
when patients typed in the word health was about a teen’s journey to manage his type II diabetes. The six minute video had 88,648 views. While the video probably inspired many, it no doubt, also benefited the company - Lillyhealth - that posted it. Some of the viewers who watched the teen’s journey also clicked on other videos specific to medications posted on the same channel.
Despite the misperceptions, there are benefits of accessing online media for health information. Toby Free, MD, medical director at the Bellevue Family Medicine clinic says that in many cases, medical information on the Internet helps impact a patient's willingness to make healthy decisions.
"The Internet can be a powerful tool in the care of our patients," said Free. "It isn't that the patient might be given the wrong information, necessarily. The information itself may be misapplied."
Free looks forward to offering patients personal and accurate health information via the new web portal in One Chart.
"With One Chart | PATIENT, patients will be able to view accurate and personalized medical information online, without using broad based medical solutions found via the Internet."
Right or wrong, it is safe to say that patients will continue to use search engines to find health information - sometimes before consulting with a healthcare professional. Likewise, healthcare providers will also continue to provide patient education, but, that education may be trending toward instructing patients where trusted sources for health information can be found.
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