How many of us haven't, at one time or another, googled a worrying physical or mental health symptom or returned from a health care consultation to look up a diagnosis or treatment on the Internet?
A recent study by Pew Internet/American Life revealed that the Internet is one of the first places people turn to when seeking information about a health problem. Indicative of the influence of the Internet, 58% of people who found the Internet to be essential for health research said they had located their most important piece of health information online.
What kind of health information are people looking for?
The report shows that people use the Internet to self-diagnose, learn more about specific conditions, research treatment options, compare experiences with and seek support from others with similar conditions, as well as pursue additional professional advice.
Dr. Google is in
And why not? As doctors have less and less time to spend with their patients, it's easy to understand why people seek out health information on the Internet.
Dr. Google is there whenever you need him and the information available is almost limitless. Try Googling physical problems such as thyroid disease and diabetes or mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety. You'll get 20.5 million, 98.6 million, 159 million and 99 million pages of information respectively.
The Internet can also facilitate access to all kinds of experts from around the world: from traditionally trained medical and mental health practitioners, to a wide variety of alternative health specialists and to those individuals whose expertise lies in their personal experience with a particular condition.
Add in the anonymity inherent in the Internet environment and researching that worrying health issue on the Internet is an attractive option.
So it's all good?
Well, actually, no. While there is no doubt that the Internet can be an extremely useful physical and mental health resource, there are a number of concerns that need to be taken into account when using the Internet in this way.
Quality of information
Most concerns relate to the accuracy of the information made available. There are no restrictions on who can set up a medical or mental health website and verifying the credentials of an individual or organisation responsible for a website can be difficult, if not impossible. While only 6% in the Pew Internet/American Life survey reported getting bad information, how many people actually think to verify the information they get online?
An additional problem is that the information available can be biased. Often, sites may be set up by commercial organisations and pharmaceutical companies. In many cases, the commercial connection will not always be obvious. This raises the question as to whether the information provided is skewed towards a particular interest.
Within the Internet environment, there is no filter for good or bad information. The only moderator is the individual who is viewing the information.
In the past couple of years, there's been a lot of discussion about cyberchondria, an excessive preoccupation with one’s health caused by often erroneous Internet information. While medical information has always been available, the size of the audience, increased accessibility , volume and depth of information online generates great potential for augmenting health concerns.
In regard to health, everyone differs in how much information they want and can cope with. When accessing the Internet for health research, those individual informational preferences cannot be accounted for. Individuals can therefore often come away overburdened with information.
While not wishing to detract from the potential benefits of online support groups, the anecdotal evidence available in chat rooms and on bulletin boards can be a minefield for those already pre-disposed to health anxiety. There can often be a high degree of inaccuracy inherent in such information and, occasionally, personal experience can be subjected to a degree of sensationalism. As individuals recount their own experiences, the story of the rash that disappears without a problem is less likely to be heard. The headache that turned out to be a brain tumour more so. Distancing oneself from the experiences of others can be difficult when facing health concerns.
What should I be aware of in using the Internet as a health resource?
Health on the Net Foundation (HON) has developed a "code of conduct", which holds participating health Web sites accountable to basic ethical standards of information presentation. Look for Web sites that adhere to the HON Code of Conduct. Such sites will contain the HON logo.
Be aware of sites sponsored by commercial interests where information may potentially be biased towards the company's interests.
Be wary of any web site that charges for online consultations or diagnosis. It is difficult to be certain that you are communicating with a health professional and an accurate diagnosis without face-to-face contact is unlikely.
If you have a specific area you wish to research, consider asking your health care provider for guidance in finding reputable sources of information. Similarly, if you encounter information that concerns you, ensure you clarify it with your health care provider.