Communications: Patient Education

Patient Education: Family Physicians Offer Advice About Online Health Information

Friday, December 5, 2003  
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Want to cross-reference your medical symptoms, read up on heart disease or map out an exercise plan? Simply key a few words into a search engine and you’ll be bombarded with links to numerous health web sites. These days, all it takes is a computer with internet access and you’ve got a wealth of health information at your fingertips. The hard part is deciding whether that information can be trusted.

"The world wide web is well-named after its biological counterpart, the spider web,” said Glenn Nemec, a Monticello family physician and member of the Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians. "The spider has to sift through dust, leaves and grass to get his meal. When it comes to medical information on the web, we humans have the same problem. We need to sort through a lot of junk to get stuff fit for consumption.”

So how does the average person figure out what’s good or bad information? Family physicians will tell you there is no foolproof way to do it without the help of your doctor - so don’t hesitate to ask him or her about what you’ve found.

"Your doctor won’t be offended that you’ve turned to the web for help, he or she should appreciate the fact that you’re concerned enough about your health to do some research,” said Nemec. "Just don’t use that research as an excuse for not going to your doctor,” said Nemec. "Health information online can be very helpful, but it should never be used for self-diagnosis.”

Family physicians agree there are some general guidelines to help a non-physician evaluate a medical web site. First, know who has produced the information you are looking at. Web sites are easy to develop – just about anyone can do it. Many sites are sponsored by or created by companies selling a product or service. These sites may reflect company influence in the content of the information. Some are created by individuals or groups who have strongly held opinions that may not be supported by medical facts. You should find out who created the site and be careful about checking their information.

Second, find out if a site is "refereed”. This means it has been screened by experts on a particular topic for accuracy. An un-refereed site, allows anyone to say anything without having to prove it is correct. You can tell if a site is refereed if they have an editorial board that reviews information. This can often be found at the bottom of the site’s home page in the small print or on the ‘policies’ or ‘web site information’ page. If you can’t find anything on the site’s home page that tells you how information is screened, it’s probably not being done and is more likely to be misleading.

You must also look at how old the information is. Medicine changes at an alarmingly fast rate. If the information you are reading is out of date, it will not be very helpful. Stick with sites that regularly update their information.

"All of this screening and verifying information can be time-consuming if you have to do it for every web site,” said Nemec. "If you want some sites that are refereed and regularly updated try familydoctor.org, ama-assn.org, mayoclinic.org, medformation.com or WebMD.com. Just go to the home pages and look for the links to health information for patients.”

The Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians is a professional association of approximately 3,000 family physicians, family medicine residents and medical students organized to assist family physicians in providing quality medical care in Minnesota. The MAFP is the largest medical specialty organization in Minnesota and is a state chapter of the American Academy of Family Physicians, one of the largest national medical organizations in the United States with more than 103,000 members.


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