Patients going on-line for medical information

Take a proactive approach and recommend sites

Your patients may be turning to the Internet to learn about their conditions, diseases, and fitness because they aren’t getting the information they need in your office, a new study shows.

Some 17.5 million adults in America are using the Internet to search for health information, according to the 1999 Environmental Assessment: Rising to the Challenge of a New Century, by New York-based Deloitte & Touche, LLP, and VHA, Inc., a nationwide network of 1,800 community-owned health care organizations and physicians based in Irving, TX.

Of the consumers who use the Internet to find health care information, 81% say they consider the information to be useful or very useful.

More than half are looking for information on specific disease or conditions. Other reasons include educational services, dietary information, medication and drug information, and wellness programs.

The study also reports that 66% of patients don’t receive written information about their condition or their child’s condition and only a third of patients receive information about their medications.

Patients say they are visiting the Internet for health care information because they don’t get the information they need at their physician’s office. The physician may not have the time to give patients all the information they need orally, or the written material that is available is not specific enough, says Merlin Olson, principal at Deloitte & Touche.

However, Olson points out that there are risks to patients getting health care information on-line because there is no guarantee that the information or advice is accurate.

"Unfortunately, patients don’t always come away particularly well-informed or better educated. They don’t understand the information, or they misinterpret it, or they only get part of the important information. Just because they are assessing the data, it doesn’t necessarily make them more informed," Olson says.

Physicians have reported to Olson that they have to schedule longer office visits to clear up the misunderstandings patients have gotten from the Internet.

Olson suggests that physicians encourage their patients to use the Internet for health care information, but to be prepared to recommend specific sites they feel are credible and well-presented.

Rather than physicians going through all the available sites themselves, they should have someone on their staff pre-screen all applicable health care sites. Then physicians can look through a short list of sites and find those they can endorse, he says.

"The individual practitioners would want to be familiar with the content and quality of the sites they recommend," he says.

The lists of sites a physician might recommend would vary by diagnosis, Olson says. He suggests checking out sites of organizations that deal with specific diseases and conditions. Most of these Web sites have links to other health care sites.