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Internet Can Be Vital Tool to Gather Health Information If Used Wisely

 

Unreliable sources, one-size-fits-all symptom checkers can cause unnecessary anxiety

DAYTON, Ohio (September 10, 2013) – More people are relying on the Internet when it comes to gathering information and health care is certainly no exception.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a study revealed that about two-thirds of surveyed patients said they turned to the Internet to obtain health information for themselves or a loved one. Patients say the Internet is a vehicle through which they can manage their own health care and even determine if they need professional help, the NIH stated. It is also used as a tool to gather additional information after a physician has given an initial diagnosis on a condition.

Christopher Aviles, MD, at Beavercreek Family Physicians, a Premier HealthNet practice, agrees that the patient role has undergone a major shift in just the past decade as they have gone from a “passive recipient to an active consumer of health information,” as described in the NIH study. Frequently, a patient will enter Dr. Aviles’ exam room having already researched their symptoms. The challenge, however, is that only a small percentage of the time, that patient has actually come to an accurate conclusion, he said.

“I can say more often than not, patients are turning to the Internet to look up their symptoms. They are getting back a variety of information because many patients are not familiar with reputable sites and where they should be looking,” Dr. Aviles said. “So, often they will come in convinced that they have a particular diagnosis when in fact it is nowhere near the truth.”

It is important for patients to understand what websites are reliable and trustworthy. Sites operated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (cdc.gov) and the NIH (nih.gov) are government sites that contain information that is evidence-based. This is important because the information given is based on actual studies and not merely on hearsay or anecdotal experience. It also means the information is not influenced by a sponsor who is trying to sell a particular pharmaceutical product.

There are also informational sites that are run by reputable organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics (healthychildren.org) and American Academy of Family Physicians (familydoctor.org) that can offer helpful information about health issues and topics. Dr. Aviles warns patients not to rely on information found in blogs that are based on a personal opinion or experience rather than scientific evidence.

Perhaps the most important thing is that patients shouldn’t use or rely upon sites that offer symptom checkers. This is where a patient plugs in their symptoms and receives a diagnosis.

“I would not rely on the Internet to prove or disprove a diagnosis,” Dr. Aviles said. “There is much more to making a diagnosis than symptoms. There are physical findings – which is a big factor – the patient’s history – which the Internet doesn’t take into account – and probably 90 percent comes just from listening to the patient and asking the appropriate questions – which there is no program out there that can walk you through the complexities of human physiology.”

Dr. Aviles encourages patients to rely on their primary care physician for help in navigating health information. Aside from a patient’s physician, MyChart, the patient portal of Premier Health’s electronic medical records, offers a solid source of medical information for patients. Patients can utilize MyChart to learn about health topics tailored to their medical conditions and health concerns with Internet access or a phone app.

The NIH says there are several things patients can keep in mind when using the Internet as a source of information. Knowing what type of website it is, who has written the material and when it was dated are good things to keep in mind. Many health care systems – such as Premier Health – have their own websites that offer patients additional information on common health problems.

To learn more about Premier HealthNet or to visit the information on its site, visit www.premierhealthnet.com/doctor.

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