Most patients check the Internet to look up illnesses and health conditions they may have, but don’t consider the Web a substitute for their doctors, a new study suggests.
University of California-Davis researchers found most people go online to become better informed and prepared to play an active role in their healthcare — not because they don’t trust their physicians.
The study findings, published in the Journal of Health Communication, are based on a survey of more than 500 people who were members of online support groups and had scheduled appointments with a physician.
"We found that mistrust was not a significant predictor of people going online for health information prior to their visit," said Xinyi Hu, who co-authored the study. "This was somewhat surprising and suggests that doctors need not be defensive when their patients come to their appointments armed with information taken from the Internet."
Hu and colleagues examined how the study participants used support groups, Internet resources, and offline sources of information – including traditional media, friends and relatives – before their medical appointments. They found no indication users of online health information had less trust in their doctors than those who did not surf the Web.
"The Internet has become a mainstream source of information about health and other issues," Hu noted. "Many people go online to get information when they anticipate a challenge in their life. It makes sense that they would do the same when dealing with a health issue."
Almost 70 percent of the study subjects said they ask their doctors questions about the information they found online. About four in 10 said they print out online information to take with them to discuss with their doctors. And more than half said they had made at least one request of their doctor based on Internet information.
"As a practicing physician, these results provide some degree of reassurance," said co-researcher Richard L. Kravitz, a UC-Davis Health System professor of internal medicine. "The results mean that patients are not turning to the Internet out of mistrust; more likely, Internet users are curious information seekers who are just trying to learn as much as they can before their visit."