Health information on the Web: a one way street

The number of people going online to seek out health information has doubled in the last decade, from over 30% to over 60%. The patient community is dichotomising rapidly into health technologists, who use online resources frequently and health traditionalists, who seldom use the Internet.  Today, three out of every four North Americans use commercially sponsored websites to feed their health information needs.

Despite the plethora bulletin boards, home pages, and blogs, websites are still the preferred source. Increasing confidence in search strategies contributes to increasing the trust in Web-based information.

No matter how credible they are, websites are a series of one way streets.

University students in their third year of study show more discerning search strategies and trust in their judgments based on their Internet research than their peers in the first year.

Young people with strong health beliefs trust local doctors’ websites the most, whereas people with weaker health beliefs trust hospitals’ websites more. Users with higher income and education prefer medical universities’ websites.

It’s not just a matter of familiarity. Developing trust and confidence in websites is a complex process. For example, websites which have lower levels of credibility have a lot more interactive features and advertising.

No matter how credible they are, websites are a series of one way streets. They always lead from a single question to a single answer – sometimes illuminating and sometimes not. In real health care, there are no dead ends or unfinished streets – just wrong search strategies. The Web always has an answer – you only have to search the right way to find it.  This pre-defined pathway suits a consumer who is sick of contemporary health care and all its uncertainty of diagnoses, vagueness about outcomes and strings of changing medications.

Unfortunately, websites cannot answer the complexity that is individual patient care and artificial intelligence isn’t there yet either. Patients still have to revert to real clinicians for their care. However, internet-informed patients introduce a new dimension to clinical care.

These patients have more questions and request additional treatments or medications during consultations. This third party, the static information source, is changing the way doctors and patients interact. Today’s doctors need to be Web savvy interpreters, myth debunkers, as well as their integrated and multidimensional roles of diagnosticians, counsellors and treatment managers.

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