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Healthcare On The Web: Why We Still Need Experts

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Two out of three Americans turn to the Internet to find answers to their health problems, but the often-anonymous advice they find can pose a real threat to their well-being. Here's what we can do.

Whether the problem is a rash or a persistent cough, the first step for a majority of Americans is to search their symptoms online. For these Internet users looking to enlighten themselves on health issues, however, the sheer mass of information on the Web will often only leave them in even greater obscurity. Although legitimate and valuable sources of health information exist online, trying to separate the wheat from the chaff can prove arduous as the Internet levels the playing field between licensed physicians and the nameless contributors to innumerable forums and blogs.

The reality of 'self-care'

According to a survey conducted by the Pew Internet Project in 2012, 72% of American Internet users have searched online for health information in the last year, more than three-quarters of whom started by typing their symptoms or other keywords into a search engine (where the top results are often sponsored). Only 13% began on specialized health websites such as WebMD.

Of course, not all health-related searches are strictly medical. Beyond those looking for a diagnosis, the Internet serves as a forum for those seeking support and for finding general information about doctors and health facilities (rankings, reviews...). When it comes to more serious health questions, 91% of Americans still rely on their physician as their primary information source but the Internet has become a sort of waiting room that patients visit before and after they see their doctor.

Indeed, the sheer amount of health information freely available on the Internet, and the hassle sometimes involved in getting an appointment with the family doctor, mean that physicians are increasingly being bypassed. 'Self-care' is here to stay.

Bad advice: costs nothing and worth the price

The problem is that the health information one finds online is not nearly as reliable as most readers think. According to researchers from the American Academy of Pediatrics [PDF], less than half of websites offer accurate information on sleep safety for infants. The Web is an information jungle, composed of a hodge-podge of blogs, forums, social networks, and company and governmental websites, where the most reliable pages are not necessarily the ones that rise to the top of Google searches. A majority of Internet content is unsigned, making it difficult to know exactly where the information comes from. To make matters worse, a 2012 Bupa study showed that only 47% of readers bother to check the credibility of information sources.

Another problem with depending first and foremost on the Internet for health information is the unnecessary anxiety it can create. Someone may have simple heartburn but, after searching for 'chest pain' on Google for twenty minutes, they could easily become convinced that heart failure and death are imminent. A study commissioned by Microsoft shows that, for up to 40% of participants, online searches on health topics escalated into users' certainty that they were suffering from a far more serious condition. Fred Metcalf once quipped, "Hypochondria is the only disease hypochondriacs don't think they have". Now, a new term has arisen: Cyberchondria.

Doctors, raise your voices

Information found on the Internet, no matter how credible its source, cannot displace an appointment with a doctor. What is equally clear, however, is that more and more Internet users will search for answers to their health queries on Google, and that this search for information can be hazardous for both their health and those they care for. What is needed is for qualified medical professionals to grab hold of their keyboards and write and edit more content themselves, though this is easier said than done.

Besides most physicians' lack of leisure time to blog, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) requires all health practitioners to read a thorough history of their patient's current condition and undertake a physical exam before offering a diagnosis, what most Internet users search for the most.

There is a need for online health information that is reliable and well written on one hand and well referenced on the other. The best way to accomplish this is for health professionals and online media outlets, whose content tends to naturally climb the ranks of Google search pages, to work together, producing informative guides on the most searched-for ailments. The leveling nature of the Internet can give the impression that the reign of 'experts' is over, but when it comes to health, the need for qualified voices in the public sphere is greater than ever before.