Special Reports

February 28, 2013

Getting medical info online has pluses, minuses

Most of us have been there in some form or another: Eye twitching, nose running, left elbow hurting, we hunker down in front of the computer, tap our way to our favorite search engine and eagerly begin investigating possible answers to what ails us.

Most of us have been there in some form or another: Eye twitching, nose running, left elbow hurting, we hunker down in front of the computer, tap our way to our favorite search engine and eagerly begin investigating possible answers to what ails us.

According to Pew Internet research, 81 percent of U.S. adults use the Internet and 72 percent of them have looked online for health information within the past year. They mostly look up specific diseases or conditions, treatments or procedures, and search for doctors or other health professionals, the study showed.

That’s what happened with Karen Mellington, 45, of Park City, who said she just wasn’t getting to the bottom of what was causing her chronic hip pain. So she turned to the Internet.

“It had gotten to the point where I really just wanted to see what else it could possibly be,” said Mellington, who said she had been circling in a “wait and see” mode for months before heading online for some answers. “So I decided to do a little research of my own.”

Mellington said her online efforts opened her mind to a number of potential issues, but, most importantly, got her to see a specialist who discovered possible culprits for her pain and is working on a plan to combat it.

“The Internet helped me find things a little less frightening,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve diagnosed myself or even have a clue before I go in, but I don’t feel quite as threatened by what could possibly be there. I like to be a little more knowledgeable about what the possibilities might be when I go in.”

As many have pointed out, the Internet’s greatest strength is that users can find information about almost anything. It also can be its greatest weakness, inundating people with scary or inaccurate information just as often as it provides medically valid and informative references.

What’s an armchair researcher to do?

For the most part, doctors say they have no problem with people becoming more informed about medical issues. They enjoy patients who are accurately educated about their conditions and can have a frank discussion with their doctors about them.

But for every well-informed patient, there are folks who come in confused about their maladies, terrified they have the worst-case scenario and, even worse, insist they know what the physician needs to do to fix them.

“In general, I’d call it a mixed bag,” said Dr. Denis Knight, a family practice physician with Wichita Family Medicine Specialists. “We all use it. The problems happen when people don’t interpret the information well and they get frightened because they assume the worse.

“But on the positive side, it brings in patients better informed about what possibilities exist and they’ve already began discussing it among family members.”

The trick is for people to know how to look up accurate information, avoid chat rooms, blogs and sources that aren’t from an educational or reputed medical institution, and, perhaps most important, know when to see their physician.

Becoming informed is not the same thing as getting advice from a trained physician with years of medical school and research behind them, doctors point out.

The National Institutes of Health concluded a decade ago that patient-provider relationships were bound to change because of the Internet. Researchers worried that doctors would face new challenges as patients obtain health information from the Internet, share only some of this with their physician, or potentially turn to the Internet instead of consulting with a health care provider.

Perhaps that is partially true, but Pew Internet reports that today, clinicians remain a central resource for most adults. The vast majority of health care and conversations take place offline, researchers say. In the past year, 70 percent of U.S. adults who regularly go online got information, care or support from a doctor or other health care professional, according to Pew research.

Most researchers agree: Physicians should recognize that patients are using the Internet as a source of medical and health information, but should be prepared to offer patients suggestions for Web-based health resources to assist them in finding quality medical information.

That’s exactly the conversation Dr. Sharon Breit had with her nurse recently. Breit is a busy Wichita ob-gyn, a field that possibly sees more patients hungry for information than any other specialty.

“Especially with pregnant patients, they’re information seekers more than any other time in their lives,” Breit said. “A lot of patients —particularly with a first pregnancy — are wanting to learn as much as they can, so, good or bad, they are using the Internet.”

She recalls hearing a recent conversation from an older, educated, financially stable couple who got pregnant and decided they didn’t want to pay to take prenatal classes at a local hospital when they could find it online for free. Surprised, that’s when Breit realized, culturally, the mentality has changed.

Today, because the dynamics of her patient conversations have changed so much in the past 10 years since Internet access has become so commonplace, Breit said she is looking to put together a resource list for her ob patient packets, online sources that provide accurate information about pregnancy, medications and other questions that always come up with her patients.

“I tell my patients, whether ob or gyn, to stay away from forums and blogs,” she said. “There’s too much on the Internet that can scare you unnecessarily. If you need more information, I always say to look at certain websites that are evidence-based. You have to steer the patient in the right direction.”

Breit and other doctors recommend that patients who want to do their own research stick to trusted, well-regarded medical sites, such as the Mayo Clinic, WebMD, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to name a few.

Another indicator a site might offer reputable advice is if it stems from a university or non-profit group and ends with “.edu” or “.org.”

In the end, however, trained physicians remain one of the best resources for garnering specific medical information and getting to the bottom of a personal health issue. The Internet can be a valuable resource, but it can’t properly diagnose or help cure a patient — it can only educate and, hopefully, spur the patient to get the help he or she needs from a physician.

“We would never discourage anyone from gathering information first,” Knight said. “Reliable websites are important, but at some point, you need to have that long-standing relationship with a patient. (Physicians) uncover the problem in layers, like peeling an onion. You don’t just go to the heart of the onion on the first stroke.”

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