Physicians need to counsel patients about online health information

October 16, 2000

More people are using the Internet to find health information on their own and physicians and other medical professionals need to take a more active role in helping patients evaluate such online data, according to a study by doctors from Duke University Medical Center and an Illinois clinic. "What this tells me is more patients are getting information from the Web than physicians realize, and this should serve as a wake-up call to health care providers," said Dr. J. Barry O'Connor, a Duke gastroenterologist.

O'Connor and his colleague, Dr. John Johanson, of Rockford (Ill.) Gastroenterology Associates, reported their findings in Wednesday's issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association and said health care providers rarely recommend their patients seek online advice. Their study details a gastrointestinal clinic population's usage of the Internet to gain health information, the number of reports of physician recommendation toward use of the Web for that purpose and the type of information accessed.

"We found a significant number of patients reporting use of the Internet as a source of medical information," said O'Connor. "The number was much higher than we expected. However, only 4 percent of patients reported to us that their physicians had recommended them to do so." Patients reported getting online information about medical conditions, prescription medication, diet and nutrition, treatment options and alternative therapies. Most patients also reported they believe the information they find on the Web is accurate and comprehensive.

"Physicians and patients both need to recognize the necessity of being able to critically evaluate health information on the Internet," said O'Connor. "Health care providers should initiate dialogue early on concerning where patients should look for accurate, comprehensive and understandable online health information."

A cross-section survey was conducted in August 1999 on 1,006 patients at the Duke gastrointestinal clinic and at Rockford Gastroenterology Associates - a private clinic in Rockford, Ill. A total of 924 patients responded to the questionnaires. Analysis of these self-reports showed more than 25 percent of patients had used the Web to gain health information in the last year, and 60 percent were planning to use it in the future.

Most respondents said they relied upon Internet search engines such as "Yahoo!" or "Alta Vista" to take them to appropriate sites, whereas only 8 percent of users report going directly to information-specific sites such as those offered by the National Institutes of Health, American Cancer Society or various medical schools. This finding particularly underscores the need for physician counsel, researchers said.
The Duke division of gastroenterology and Rockford Gastroenterology Associates supported the study.

Tracey Koepke

Duke University Medical Center

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