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Evaluating Internet Medical Info Requires Caution

Armen Hareyan's picture

The vast quantities of medical information available on the Internet can be overwhelming to a patient searching for reliable health information. As more people use the Internet to research medical conditions and self-diagnose, a new kind of patient is emerging, one known in medical circles as the "Cyberchondriac."

Although it is increasingly easy to access medical web sites from your own home and natural to worry about your personal health, it's difficult to distinguish the good information from the bad, and important to keep the lines of communication open with your doctor.

"More information, as a general rule, is better," says Dr. Harrison G. Weed, an internal medicine physician at Ohio State University Medical Center. "But it's hard to know what information is important, what's reliable and what's not - to put it into the context of your own symptoms. And so a person has a symptom and goes and looks on the Internet and says 'Geez, a cough could be all these terrible, horrible things.'"

When considering information from the Internet, the most important thing to do is determine the motivation for someone to build a Web site, says Weed. "First of all, you have to understand that it's relatively easy to do. Second of all, you need to understand why someone would bother to put up a Web site, maintain it and put information on it. And often there's self-interest; they're trying to sell something."

Susan Scritchfield, patient education coordinator for the James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute at Ohio State, also warns of the dangers of using the Internet to gather medical information.

"Information on the Internet is uncensored and there is often no assurance of quality, and some of it is very persuasive," says Scritchfield, who has taught a class to help cancer patients and caregivers surf the 'Net with better ability to discriminate what sources to use and how to examine the sites with more confidence. "Some information you find on the Web can evoke a response of fear. One concern is sites that say, 'Here is the truth that your doctor won't tell you.'"

Abigail Jones, consumer health librarian at Ohio State's Medical Center who often helps patients research their health conditions, says there are a few simple ways to tell if a Web site is reputable:

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* Authority - The person or organization that sponsors the site is qualified, has credentials and is accountable.

* Bias - The information is given objectively.

* Currency - The information is up-to-date. The links are current.

* Content - The information is given in a logical way and is based on reputable resources.

Many experts suggest using www.medlineplus.gov, which will refer people to a number of reliable sites, based upon search terms entered.

Institutions and organizations with good reputations are more likely to have reliable web site information since it is in their best interest, says Weed. "What they are trying to sell is their reputation and in order to maintain that reputation, they're going to make sure there is reliable information on their Web site."

After conducting research on the Internet, it's important to share the information with your doctor to help you determine if the information is applicable to your situation.

"I do think it's important that people use the information that is available," says Weed. "The more involved they are, the better care they get. They should bring their concerns to their doctor. That's what doctors are there for." He suggests having a list of specific questions to ask your doctor about your fears and concerns.