The uneducated patient who relies solely on their healthcare provider to inform them of possible health concerns, symptoms, and treatment is almost a thing of the past. With 60-80% of Internet users seeking health information online, today’s patient is more knowledgeable and ready to take more responsibility for their own health.
The Internet has the potential to inform and empower the health consumer by educating individuals about general health, healthcare services, and support decision making. Unfortunately, the Internet has also proven to have negative impacts for the healthcare industry as well.
The Well Informed Patient
Online research conducted on reliable medical Web sites has caused a shift in the balance of knowledge over the past decade. With professional information becoming more readily available to the non-professional individual, patients are now becoming actively involved in decisions regarding their healthcare.
Patients are quickly becoming healthcare consumers, comparing research statistics of certain medications and treatments, becoming familiar with the likelihood of drug interactions, and even seeking out holistic and alternative treatment options.
A 2007 study conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project has determined that 75% of patients with chronic conditions who have gone online to seek out medical information report that their findings have directly affected decisions about the treatment of their illness. My own research online has helped me to make decisions about treating a condition I’m living with.
Patients Seek Information, Comfort and Support
According to the same Pew Internet & American Life Project report, individuals living with disabilities and chronic health conditions seek more than just health, symptom, and treatment information online.
A large percentage of patients with chronic conditions who have gone online have used the Internet to join forums and groups that give them the emotional and mental support needed to deal with the crisis they are facing. I’ve participated in one such online forum, and it’s been very helpful to discuss various things with other people who have the same symptoms as I have. Most patients report having a positive experience online, while a small percent of patients claim that the information on forums and groups causes them stress and anxiety at the thought of what may lie ahead.
Another area of concern to the healthcare industry is the growing number of “cyberchondriacs” or individuals who type in a number of symptoms on a Web-MD type of site and as a direct result become convinced that they have a particularly distressing ailment, disease, or illness.
Surveys around the globe confirm that millions of individuals obsessively use the Internet to research ailments, real or imagined, they may have. Armed with information (or misinformation), many patients arrive to their medical appointment with a list of tests that should be performed, as well as treatment and medication options.
Unfortunately for healthcare providers, this growing problem is something that must be dealt with delicately but firmly. Psychologists recommend that physicians and other healthcare providers educate the general public of the dangers of self diagnosis, as well as the fact that Web sites cannot be considered as a reliable diagnostic source. Self diagnosis can lead to online users seeking out herbal remedies and even ordering medication from overseas retailers to treat a condition that they may not even have.
Overall, the Internet can be a helpful resource for patients who wish to educate themselves about health issues and learn new ways to live healthier, more fulfilling lives. When seeking information from reliable medical Web sites, patients can become proactive when making decisions regarding treatment, rehabilitation, medications, and ongoing healthcare. And although information found on the Internet can certainly be misused, it cannot be denied that the Internet has changed the healthcare industry forever.