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Medical Advice Online

A Prescription for Disaster

In these tough economic times, more people seek medical advice on the Internet, but you must look carefully to avoid bad information. The connection that many of these sites have with pharmaceutical companies means that the integrity of their information might be compromised.

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The patient could have been treated, says Dr. Dan Ballarin. But by the time the woman, who had a slow-growing brain tumor, sought traditional medical help, her chances of survival were gone. The patient, who was seen by an associate of Ballarin’s, had sought health information about her condition online. This led her to a site that encouraged self-administration “of a variety of herbal concoctions promoted as natural cures for cancer,” says Ballarin, who is a Chicago doctor who left private practice 2 years ago. “Unfortunately, the patient was distracted by questionable information, in part gathered online, and it proved to be deadly for her.”

Consumers’ use of the Internet for self-diagnosis and treatment isn’t new, of course, but the current tough economic times mean that people who choose to seek health information online are being joined by those who believe that they have no options.

The recession, which has cost many workers their jobs, health insurance and even the ability to afford a co-payment, has translated into a 1 percent drop in doctor visits nationally, according to IMS Health, which supplies statistics to the health care field. So, where do all of those patients turn? Some turn to their computers, and, too often what they find on the Internet is misleading—and potentially dangerous.

GROWING PAINS. Today, 61 percent of U.S. adults have sought health information online, according to Pew Internet 2008 telephone surveys. FinancialWire news service estimates that 10 million U.S. adults look for health information online on a daily basis.  

Those hordes of consumers can choose from an expanding number of online health sites, although that number is impossible to pin down. Department of Health & Human Services says there are 3,608 U.S.-based online health sites, up from 2,178 in 2007. Health on the Net Foundation (HON), which is a Geneva-based international accrediting organization, says it accredits 6,800 sites in 118 countries, but it doesn’t have an overall figure. And the health network Healthline pegs the number at 240,000 “consumer-health public Web sites” that are based in the United States. Healthline’s Bill McGee says the number is based on a proprietary search technology platform that combines both medical and nonmedical terminology and excludes duplications and veterinary terms.

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Whatever the number of sites, Ballarin’s sad case history points to the nature of today’s online health sites—plenty of information but often little guidance regarding what that information means or its reliability. And not only can the online health information lead patients to delay or forgo necessary treatment, it also can lure them into exaggerating their conditions, which is a tendency that has spawned a new label—cyberchondria, or hypochondria that is triggered or worsened by the flood of online health information. And overreliance on the Internet, one doctor tells us, has spawned an increase in medical student syndrome—the belief that you have the symptoms of a disease that you are studying.

After studying the online searches of 515 Microsoft employees, researchers Ryen W. White and Eric Horvitz reported in a 2008 paper that was published by Microsoft that using Web searches as a way to obtain a diagnosis can produce three pernicious features of real hypochondria—medical anxiety, obsession with symptoms and doubt of doctors’ diagnoses.

The study also found that only 23 percent of the employees said they scheduled doctor appointments after finding alarming health information online; but of those, 27 percent said that after the appointment, they were not reassured by physicians or convinced that their “worries were not justified.” Six out of 10 employees also admitted that performing their online searches cost them time at work.

HELP IS ON THE WEB. Many of today’s online health sites are veritable health “immersion courses” in which you can find a doctor or hospital, learn about a medicine or treatment, and assess your health (or health IQ, as the sites put it) or disease risk. The sites are increasingly interactive and allow you to chat with doctors, watch videos and post questions and answers.  

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