News, Women's Health Ben Brown | 3 years ago

The Internet as a Medical Resource: Is it a Helpful or Harmful Tool?

More often than not, people turn to the internet to determine the source of their medical aches and pains times and end up diagnosing themselves before ever stepping foot into a doctor’s office. While the internet can be a valuable source of information; it must be used with caution and online users need to be educated on what sites are an accurate source of information. To learn more about the pros and cons of internet searching for your health needs, Brad Hurst, MD, director of reproductive endocrinology and Michelle Matthews, MD, associate director of reproductive endocrinology at Carolinas HealthCare System, break down what works and what to avoid when searching for medical information online. Recent research just published this year indicated that about 80% of patients use the internet for information following a visit with their doctor. The most common reasons reported by patients were curiosity about their medical condition or feeling that they did not receive enough information during their visit. Patients frequently search for information on symptoms, diagnoses, medication side effects, and complementary or alternative treatment options. The concern that many healthcare providers have with the use of the internet for medical information is the question about the accuracy of the information provided. The information may not always be accurate, comprehensive, or updated appropriately as medical technology advances and recommendations are revised. Dr. Hurst warns online users to be wary of those sites. “Forums, chat rooms and postings can provide information that is inaccurate, sometimes misleading, and occasionally alarming,” Dr. Hurst said. The information is not verified by professionals and not kept up to date with the most recent material. Fortunately, a recent review published in May, 2014 of websites that provide information for pregnant women about prenatal testing found that the basic information supplied was accurate. However, particularly for patients with more complex medical situations, the information was often not as comprehensive as necessary. Patients often have more than one medical consideration that may impact the best course of treatment for any medical problem,  and decisions regarding healthcare choices are often more complex. Nonetheless, online resources can be an effective tool to provide patients with basic information and support communication with a healthcare provider.   “As a healthcare provider, I frequently find it helpful if patients have done some additional reading about their specific medical concerns and find the internet can frequently be helpful tool,” Dr. Matthews said. “When women use the internet to research specific health concerns, it is important to use reputable resources to obtain their information.”   An excellent source for women is the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists website (www.acog.org) which provides information regarding many aspects of women’s healthcare from adolescents through menopause. It includes information on current recommendations for routine visits, pap smears, breast health, surgical procedures, common gynecologic problems, and menopause among many other topics. The information is also updated as medical information changes. Another outstanding resource for women interested in learning more about fertility can use the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (www.asrm.org) website. Also, asking your healthcare provider which websites they recommend can also be very helpful, and many medical practices have their own websites which many provide useful links to websites they recommend for patients to obtain additional information.