The healthy Internet

How often do you turn to the Internet to find health information? If you’re like me, it’s normally the first resource you seek out.

According to some interesting new data from Google, this is far from unusual. Mary Ann Belliveau, Google’s health industry director, recently guest-blogged at CNN about the rise of health information-seeking on the Internet. Among the statistics she shared:

- Health information is “one of the web’s most popular topics.”

- A Google-commissioned study by the research and consulting firm OTX found high use of the Internet among people who researched their conditions online before talking with their doctor. I’ve been unable to find any data on the actual size of this survey or how it was conducted, so the findings are somewhat vague. Here are a couple of key data points, though: The proportion of respondents who looked for information online before seeing their doctor was 75 percent, and 70 percent of the respondents also researched online afterwards to learn more.

- Online search engines were the tool most people turned to first.

- 37 percent of the respondents said they did health-related Internet searches at least once a week.

What information do people most want to find? Belliveau writes: “The No. 1 thing we hear from patients and caregivers is a desire to hear from people in situations similar to their own.”

If the study results are any indication, people aren’t passive about how they use the information they find online. Belliveau writes that 55 percent said they changed their lifestyle or behavior, 52 percent made a self-diagnosis, 49 percent started an over-the-counter treatment, and 46 percent told a doctor about a symptom they or someone else had.

This interest in health-related information also extends to social media. According to the survey, the health category on YouTube was more popular than sports, food or celebrities.

A couple of thoughts come to mind: First, although physicians often gripe about patients who get their health information on the Internet, it’s a phenomenon that’s widespread and won’t go away any time soon. If anything, it likely will become the standard, default behavior among a younger generation that has grown up taking Google and the Internet for granted. Rather than fighting it, health care professionals need to learn to live with it and figure out how they can incorporate it in a way that’s constructive.

Second, the Internet is a bottomless pit when it comes to health information – some of it accurate and worthwhile information but some of it unhelpful, misleading, or overly generalized. Some websites purport to offer health information but in reality are thinly disguised marketing ploys. And sometimes the information that can be found online has no basis in science whatsoever and might be downright harmful.

Some consumers can separate the wheat from the chaff and navigate all of this on their own. Others need help learning how to judge a website’s credibility and what questions to ask. And there’s a whole contingent of consumers who probably just want to be pointed toward one or two of the best websites that contain the information they need.

The Google consumer survey underscores another critical issue: People can and do take action based solely on what they read on the Internet. Reputable providers of online health information need to understand this and make every effort to be accurate and transparent.

No one seems to have clearly defined what the role of medical providers should be in steering consumers toward reliable online resources or helping them understand what they read online. Nor has there been any clear delineation of the responsibility consumers ought to bear for using online information wisely. Maybe it’s a conversation we need to have, sooner rather than later.

HealthBeat photo by Anne Polta

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