Medical Information and the Internet
With the age of information technology upon us, the methods people use to search for information is drastically changing. One of the most influential causes of this change has been the Internet. Information that has historically been difficult to access, or was only accessible to certain individuals, is now available to the general public in a matter of seconds. While the benefits and consequences of the Internet have been widespread, one sector that has been significantly impacted is health care, thanks to newly available medical information.
Previously, the only way for people to obtain reliable information about their health and wellbeing was to visit their doctor’s office and have a personal consultation. While medical books were available to the public, most having been written by doctors or other medical professionals, these books contained relatively basic information on common diseases. However, since the creation of the Internet, the plethora of information available to the general public has posed numerous problems, while simultaneously providing new benefits and leading to numerous advances.
While solutions have been previously proposed for the perceived problems caused by the Internet, there is currently much controversy as to whether or not having medical information available on the Internet causes more harm than good. This paper will discuss the effects of the availability of such information on both doctors and patients, a potential resolution to the controversy, and advancements that could result from future developments of the Internet.
The Internet is a relatively new method of communication, having been first instituted in 1982, and has been rapidly growing in popularity in the past two decades (DiMaggio 2001). However, despite its relative youth, the Internet has evolved to become an integral aspect of modern society. Just as the Internet, as a whole, has grown, the amount of medical information available on it has also grown, and at an incredible rate. As a result of the plethora of medical information available, there are numerous options as to where one can look for information, some sources being more reputable than others. Different types of sites offer different benefits, and pose different problems. In order to simplify the types of medical information available, and to aid in distinguishing between the different attributes of each type, the following categorizations, presented in John Schwartz’s 2008 article in the New York Times, “Logging on for a second (or third) opinion”, will be described.
The most popular types of sites available are classified as “general interest” (Schwartz 2008). As the name suggests, the target audience for these sites is the general public. Created by large companies, they provide very basic information about common diseases in an easy to understand format, in order to appeal to the largest number of potential consumers. Such general interest sites can be broken down into two sub sections, those that provide medical information only and those that are a section of a mainstream media company. The health-only sites, such as WebMD and the Mayo Clinic, provide basic information including symptoms, possible treatments, and checklists so that patients know what they should discuss with their doctors during a visit (WebMD 2010, Mayo Clinic 2010). Such sites highly encourage patients to visit their doctor in addition to visiting their site.
General interest sites provided by mainstream media also provide basic information, but in a slightly different format. In these cases, companies such as the New York Times or ABC News, publish news articles written by science journalists that present a simplified version of the current literature found on a medical topic. As a result, patients are able to learn about recently published research, without trying to search for and read the articles themselves. Both of these types of general interest sites aim to provide the most accurate, easiest to understand, medical information available on the Internet.
Another type of site, that patients are starting to use more and more frequently, are “medical research sites” (Schwartz 2008). These sites are designed to provide scientists and medical professionals with more readily accessible scientific literature. The creation of such sites has greatly simplified the process of researching literature on a topic. Sites such as PubMed and clinicalrials.gov offer scientists and medical professionals easier access to the information they are searching for. However, due to the complexity of the information provided, and the language it is written in, these sites are designed to be used by professionals, and not the general public.
Another type of site that is growing in popularity is “patient sites” (Schwartz 2008). These sites are designed to be used by patients in order to facilitate communication between patients with similar diseases, in order to share information with each other. These sites are not designed to provide information from professionals, to the general public, but instead to allow members of the general public to provide information to each other. These sites are increasingly being used by patients in order to form support groups, and to share stories about their illnesses and their treatments.
Similar to the patient sites are the “disease-specific sites” (Schwartz 2008). These sites are designed by organizations, such as the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society, in order to provide disease specific information, in addition to providing a space where patients can communicate with each other. Such sites provide information similar to that found on general interest sites, but also allow patients to communicate with each other and with physicians.
The Current Controversy
The creation of so many sites, and the increasing popularity of usage, has drastically changed the way patients manage their health. However, as in many situations, change has been and continues to be difficult. By providing more readily accessible medical information, the Internet has inadvertently created a disconnect between patients and their doctors. While much medical information has been posted for the benefit of patients, the current focus is on the effect that the information is having on doctors.
There are many reasons that medical information appeared on the Internet in the first place. Additionally, if the availability of such information had no benefits, it would not have grown in popularity so quickly, and would not have created the controversy that currently exists. While there is no doubt that the availability of such information has created many problems, there are also many benefits for patients, doctors, and the healthcare system as a whole.
Patients do not research medical information just because they feel like it. As with any other market, both supply and demand need to exist in order for a business venture to succeed. No matter how much information could be found on the Internet, it would not have had the significant impact on health care that it’s had without patients feeling the need to research medical information in the first place.
Due to the fact that doctors have historically had such an authoritative role, it is quite easy for a patient to feel intimidated by their doctor. In such cases, it is easy for the quality of care that a patient will receive to be diminished as an unintended result. However, studies have shown that patients report increased confidence when they bring Internet research with them to their doctor’s office (Ahmad, 2006). In such cases, the interaction will be improved for both the patient and the physician, as the patient will be more comfortable discussing exactly what is bothering them, and the doctor won’t have to guess.
In these cases, the information that patients are bringing is mostly from general interest sites or disease-specific sites. The information found on these sites is often the most beneficial in building patient confidence, as it is simple to understand. It provides patients with a basic understanding of what they are going to be discussing with their doctor. Medical research and patient sites are not as useful for this purpose, as the information is either too complex or represents only opinions and not facts.
Transition of Authority
While many doctors have become accustomed to having an authoritative role in the doctor/patient relationship, this does not have to be the case. Many doctors, when first presented with Internet information, did not welcome the change (Ahmad 2006). However, questioning a doctor by presenting them with medical information found on the Internet is not necessarily a bad thing, regardless of how doctors may feel about it. The resistance doctors are showing might be evidence that many doctors have become too comfortable in their authoritative positions. Such comfort can lead to indifference or overconfidence; which in turn can result in doctors not continuing their medical education on a regular basis. With new research being published daily on thousands of different conditions, diseases and treatments, in order for doctors to give their patients the best medical care they can, doctors need to stay up-to-date on research. While mostly general interest sites have led to this transition, all sites have had an influence, as all are being utilized by patients.
When patients bring medical information with them to a visit, they could be inadvertently teaching their physician. While it is likely that doctors have already seen quite a bit of the information their patients bring in, this is not always the case. There are instances when a patient brings in an article that the doctor has not read, or will ask about a viable treatment that the doctor did not know existed. The information patients bring in could have come from any type of site. Ideally, such encounters would then encourage the physician to conduct their own research, and stay up to date on relevant information. While this would result in physicians spending more time doing research, and potentially less time with their patients, the improvement in the care that they are able to give to their patients would be beneficial.
Doctors can benefit even more when their patients have the ability to correctly interpret data found on sites designed for professionals. The patient can interpret the data much as their physician would, and can therefore make valid conclusions about what information they should rely on and what information is not relevant to them. This could result in their spending less time in their doctor’s office discussing impractical treatments and will increase the quality of their care. It would also increase the quality of care received by the rest of the physician’s patients, as the doctor would not have to conduct their own research, and can instead draw their own conclusions based on the research done by their patient. Such a situation would be greatly beneficial to both the patient and the provider.
Standardization of Care
One definite benefit of having medical information available on the Internet is the potential for the standardization of care worldwide. Before the Internet, medical information was slow to spread, even from doctor to doctor. Because of this, patients in one part of the world could be receiving health care of a significantly higher quality than patients in another part of the world. While nothing will ever truly standardize care worldwide, due to the level of development of varying nations, the Internet certainly aids significantly in the process (Rajendran 2001, Patsos 2001).
Standardization of care can also come from direct communication between patients on patient sites and disease-specific sites. For many rare diseases, there are support groups that use the Internet to share information about treatment options, current research, and other topics (Coiera 1996, Patsos 2001). These groups result in increased communication among patients with the disease, and among doctors treating the disease. Not only does such communication bring comfort to the patients, but it also helps spread information about successful or unsuccessful treatments, which benefits all individuals with this particular disease (Patsos 2001).
Fewer unnecessary visits
Modern society includes quite a few hypochondriacs. While readily available medical information via the Internet may make things worse for some, it would also make things much better for others. One popular medical myth is that antibiotics are the cure for everything. As a result, many patients with a cold will visit their doctor and demand that they be treated with antibiotics. The doctor then must convince the patient that antibiotics will not, in fact, cure their cold. However, if the patient did a quick search on the Internet, they could find a plethora of information about the overuse of antibiotics, the increase in antibiotic resistance, and numerous other problems associated with antibiotic usage (Levy 2001). While finding such information will not dissuade all patients from making trips to their doctors’ offices, preventing any unnecessary visit would make a difference for the doctor, the insurance companies, and the healthcare system as a whole.
Making unnecessary visits to the doctor’s office has become habit for many individuals. Making matters worse, patients are no longer confining unnecessary visits to their doctor’s office, and are increasingly visiting hospital emergency departments, urgent care clinics, etc. with their concerns. According to one study, only 42% of patients visit their primary care physicians for acute care (Pitts 2010). The rest visit emergency rooms, specialists, outpatient clinics, etc. Even if only a fraction of those visits are unnecessary, there are still too many. With the healthcare problems the world faces today, resources need to be best put to use, and assuaging patient’s concerns is not always the best use of a doctor’s time.
While this is certainly not a new problem, nor was it created as a result of the Internet, the Internet does provide a potential solution (Wallace 1964). While many medical websites, including WebMD, suggest visiting a physician about your concerns, the information provided is often enough to calm the patients, and convince them that whatever they have is not necessarily life threatening. If the information gets them to visit their primary care provider, as opposed to an urgent care center, this is an improvement. Additionally, finding relevant information on the Internet is likely to help convince people that they do not need to visit their doctor for every minor problem.
One of the major problems that physicians have with the information that their patients are finding on the Internet is its quality. Unlike other relatively new technologies, there has been little skepticism when it comes to the Internet. Instead, people seem to blindly trust the information that they find online (Lundberg 2000). There is an unfortunate common belief that “if it’s on the Internet, it must be true” (Lundberg 2000). While this may not be too problematic in some cases, when individuals blindly trust medical information that they find online, the results can be disastrous. However, by the very nature of the Internet, there is no regulation as to what is posted online, and therefore it is very easy for incorrect information to appear valid (Griffiths 2000).
With information of varying quality and relevance, it is often difficult for patients to determine exactly what is safe to believe and what they must disregard (Griffiths 2000). As a result, patients can end up bringing significantly more information than they need when they visit their doctor (Ahmad 2006). Additionally, despite the fact that many patients feel compelled to search for medical information online, few are completely satisfied with the results (McMullan 2006). One survey found that 31% of individuals found the information overwhelming, and 27% found it confusing (McMullan 2006). The more worrying statistic, however, was that 76% of individuals found the information to be conflicting. This in turn leads to doctors having to spend significant amounts of time not only explaining the information the patient found, but also correcting any misinformation they may have found. Such situations are not ideal for either patients or their doctors.
As a result of the freedom of speech that this country so prides itself on, individuals are able to post anything and everything they desire on the Internet (Terry 2002). While many professional sites, such as WebMD, are very careful about what they post, any individual with the money to pay for a website and the skill to make it look professional, can post medical information online. Even without ill intentions, there are many websites that are not up-to-date, contain only partial information, or in some other way are presenting misleading information to the public. To make matters worse, approximately 75% of individuals searching the Internet do not check the source or date of the information that they are finding (Anton 2010). Individuals rarely look at disclosures, disclaimer statements, or the “about us” sections of the sites, and few even remember what site, or even the type of site, they used when asked in the future (Eysenbach 2002). Instead, they focused on the language used, ease of use, and professional design. As a result, they have no way to determine whether or not the information is even potentially relevant to them.
When patients are unable to find the information they desire on sites designed for their use, they often will turn to medical research sites. According to one study, 75% of individuals reported searching for medical information on sites geared towards medical professionals (McMullan 2006). Two of the reasons cited were the preference for more complex information (80%) and that information found on other sites is too basic (45%). In some circumstances, such as searching for a well-known disease on which significant amount of conclusive research has been done on, searching medical research sites can at times be helpful, and not detrimental, to the patient. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. Instead patients will often find conflicting information, and more often than not they will be unable to determine by themselves what information to rely on and what to disregard.
For sites geared towards professionals, this conflicting information is most likely due to the fact that it is a rare occurrence when two studies produce the exact same results. When health professionals look at such sites, they understand this, and it is their job to come to their own conclusion from the data presented. However, when the general public is looking at the same data, it is unlikely that they will have the scientific literacy required to comprehend the data and to make a valid conclusion based on it (McMullan 2006). Ideally, this would encourage patients to go to their doctor’s office for clarification. However, it is unlikely that the doctor will be able to help the patient understand this information completely, regardless of the length of the visit. As a result, the patient will be more confused, even after a doctor’s visit, than they would have been if they had stayed away from such Internet health information in the first place.
Another potential problem with patients accessing Internet health care information that has been designed to be used by physicians is when patients do research on a treatment for a particular disease. Studies about new, experimental, and potentially dangerous treatments for diseases are being published on a daily basis. Due to the demand on their time, it is unlikely that physicians would be able to read such papers as soon as they come out. While doctors should be as up to date as possible on potential treatments, some studies are so inconclusive that it would not be the best use of the physician’s time. While physicians have the education that allows them to discern the difference between online information that is worth their time, and information that is not worth their time, patients that have access to the same information most likely do not have the same ability. Instead, they will end up reading about unproven, even potentially dangerous, treatments that they then present to their physician. In the case of sites that are geared towards the general public, however, it is much less likely that information on such treatments will be available. While there will certainly be information on treatments that are not practical for a particular patient, the number of potential treatments will most likely be significantly less.
The Transition of Authority
Historically, doctors have always been the sole authority when it came to medical advice. Yes, medical information could be obtained and people would often search for it. People could get information from books or by word of mouth. However, none of these methods were very practical, and people would still always make the trek to their doctor’s office in order for their physician to make the final diagnosis, as well as the suggested treatment plan. However, with medical care now readily accessible on the Internet, doctors are finding that they are no longer the sole authority on medicine. Instead, “Dr. Google” has been gaining popularity.
In order for doctors to be licensed to practice medicine, they are required to attend medical school, to do a residency, and take extensive licensing exams. As a result, they are licensed to practice medicine. The vast amount of knowledge that doctors are expected to have learned due to this extensive education is what has made patients comfortable with trusting their medical care to their doctor. While patients would often obtain multiple opinions if unsure, they rarely would dismiss the medical advice completely. However, with online information only a mouse click away, people have become much more comfortable foregoing a visit to their doctor, and instead are relying heavily on Internet searches in order to self diagnose, and at times self treat.
Fortunately, not everyone will completely forego a doctor’s visit. Instead, in bringing extensive amounts of information with them, patients have effectively made their visit a conversation between two individuals who are more or less equal, which is drastically different from the historical doctor/patient relationship (Lutz 1998, Rajendran 2001). However, such a relationship change is not something that most doctors have taken lightly. Previously, their education was more than enough for them to gain the trust of their patients. While patients never trusted their doctors blindly, they were not constantly questioning their doctors either. While blind trust is never a good thing, neither is a lack of trust, which is the impression that many doctors are getting when patients show up with stacks of information they found on the Internet. Regardless of whether or not this is the intention, bringing such extensive materials to a doctors visit gives the impression that the doctor might be unable to diagnose the patient without the aid of such information, or that the patient does not trust them to make the correct diagnosis. Such an impression greatly undermines the doctor/patient relationship.
Current Proposed Solutions
One resolution to this controversy that was presented by the Internet Healthcare Coalition (IHC) is the institution of an “eHealth Code of Ethics” (Rippen 2000). This code of ethics proposed the tenets by which all Internet sites should abide, in order to help protect individuals that search for medical information online. These tenets are Candor, Honesty, Quality, Informed Consent, Privacy, Professionalism, Responsible Partnering, and Accountability. By complying with these tenets, sites should be able to improve their quality, and the reputation of all Internet health sites.
In theory, this code of ethics could have a great impact on the availability of quality information. Such increased availability would then make it easier for patients to come across quality information when searching, due solely to the higher percentage that would be available. However, there is a major flaw in this code. By placing all responsibility on the site owners/managers, there is no way to insure that the sites actually abide by this code. As mentioned before, due to the design of the Internet and freedom of speech, it is impossible to effectively regulate the information that is posted. It is most likely for this reason that the IHC proposed this code, which puts all responsibility on the site managers. However, such a code can only work effectively if a large number of sites abide by it in its entirety, instead of picking and choosing exactly which tenets best serve them, and discarding those that will not benefit them.
Such a problem is unique to neither healthcare nor the Internet. In order for sites to stay functional and up-to-date, they need to be financially viable. Often times, minor dilemmas are ignored if a particular solution is preferable in terms of profit. In order for the IHC’s eHealth code of ethics to work as designed, sites would need to prioritize these tenets over profitability. While this may work, it also has the potential for sites to be unable to make enough of a profit to stay afloat due to the fact that they were following these tenets exactly.
A New Solution
While the eHealth code of ethics is a good idea in principle, in reality there are challenges, including compliance. In order to fix this problem, there could be a small number of sites providing medical information on the Internet that are large enough that they can still follow the code while still maintaining a profit. There are already some sites out there that have accomplished this goal, to some extent. These sites, such as WebMD and MedlinePlus, offer their users quality, professionally validated information that is as up-to-date as possible, and as a result, both sites get a significant number of visitors every day.
However, these sites are geared more towards providing very basic information, written at an introductory level. While in theory this would be a good plan, as it would allow patients to do preliminary research, and then visit their doctor in order to get more detailed information, this has not been the case. Instead, many people consider such sites too basic, which is what has driven them to find more complex information, therefore increasing the probability that they will not understand what they are reading. In order to solve this problem, such sites need to present information at varying levels of complexity. While some people are content with obtaining only very basic information, such sites need to realize that this is not the case for everyone. By providing more complex, yet still easily readable information, these sites will be able to increase the number of people who use the site, which will not only increase profitability, but will hopefully also decrease the number of people who attempt to utilize information that is beyond their comprehension.
While providing professionally validated information of varying levels complexity should greatly improve the users’ experiences with searching for medical information online, this will not completely solve the problem that the widespread availability of health information on the Internet has created. Many doctors are currently resisting the availability of health information online and this too needs to change if patients are to get the best health care possible.
One of the biggest problems with patients searching for information is the relevancy of the information they bring to their doctors’ visit. Even with the overall quality of available information improving, this does not make much of a difference if patients do not know how and where to search. Despite their resistance, doctors are the most qualified to help guide their patients when it comes to Internet searches. By taking the time to instruct patients in what type of information to look for, and what to avoid, in addition to informing patients as to the amount of information that is appropriate to bring, doctors will be able to satisfy their patients curiosity while reducing the amount of time they spend explaining the information patients find. While there are currently several resources available to patients that will instruct them in how to properly conduct Internet searches when it comes to health information, only a small portion of patients will read such books, while all will visit their doctor (Maxwell 1998). By taking a few minutes out of a single visit to instruct their patients in the basics of searching for health information online, doctors can help their patients know how to best perform an online search.
This two-pronged solution is far from perfect. As long as the information posted on the Internet goes unregulated, patients will be able to find incorrect or irrelevant information. While increasing the amount and prominence of professionally validated information online will help reduce the amount of incorrect information patients find, it is currently impossible to eliminate such information. Unfortunately, it is also unlikely that all doctors will be willing to properly instruct their patients in how to search, either personally or through a member of their staff. The current resistance that doctors are showing will likely continue for some time, until they are convinced that the Internet is indeed improving the overall quality of health care, instead of impeding it. This proposed solution does require a leap of faith on the part of doctors, but if it succeeds, the benefits will be numerous.
With the Internet growing as fast as it is, it is unlikely that new developments will cease to emerge with respect to medical information. Instead of resisting future changes, doctors and patients alike need to embrace the changes, and to focus on increasing the number of pros and reducing the number of cons. There are currently several newer types of sites that will likely grow further in the future, and they present the opportunity for great improvements to the healthcare system.
The ability to buy prescription medications via the Internet has the potential to be incredibly beneficial. However, it is not without its faults. With so many Americans taking prescription medications that they can barely afford, individuals are looking for any method possible that would allow them to purchase less expensive prescription medications (Cohen 2004). Thanks to the Internet, there is now an alternative. Because international drug prices are often less expensive than medications purchased in the US, people have turned to the Internet to facilitate their international purchases.
Despite the fact that medications bought internationally are often cheaper, there are many downsides currently associated with these purchases, only one of which being the fact that it’s illegal. While there has been a push to legalize the international sale of prescription medications to Americans, the practice currently violates FDA regulations (Cohen 2004). Because of this, it is increasingly popular for patients to obtain prescriptions from doctors they have never personally visited. In order for patients to buy medications internationally, they will often have a doctor from the country from where the drugs are being purchased co-sign the prescription. These physicians will have never seen the patient, and are just signing off on the prescription in order for the patient to bypass the law and obtain less expensive drugs (Cohen 2004). These doctors have no way of knowing whether the patient has seen a physician in their home country or if they forged the prescription. Without the initial availability of drugs due to the Internet, it would be much harder for patients to receive such drugs illegally.
One dangerous aspect of purchasing drugs internationally is the inability to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate pharmacies. If purchasing medications from an illegitimate pharmacy, patients are risking their health. As an example, one study showed differences in the uniformity of blend for simvastatin tablets from five different countries (Veronin 2004). This would not be a problem if a patient is taking an entire pill, assuming the total content of the tablet did not vary. However, if a patient is directed to take half a pill, which many physicians prescribe, this would be problematic, as the patient would not be taking a consistent dose. Additionally, this same study showed that as much as 10% of the worlds’ drug trade is in counterfeit drugs, with some countries having a significantly higher percentage (Veronin 2004). Purchasing counterfeit medications via the Internet would not only be illegal, but could be lethal to patients.
While there are currently many issues related to purchasing prescription medications on the Internet, there is also great potential. While the Internet has made it significantly easier for individuals to work outside the law in order to obtain the most inexpensive medications possible, it has also sped up the process for all of the patients who obey the law. Before the Internet, patients would take their prescriptions to a brick and mortar pharmacy, wait for their prescription to be filled, and then continue on their way. While this was, and continues to be, a perfectly functional system, it was very time consuming. The Internet sped up the process significantly. Now patients, doctors, and pharmacists can all work via the Internet, which has the ability to eliminate the need to visit a pharmacy at all. Instead, by conducting all interactions via the Internet, medications can be mailed directly to the patient, making things simpler, and less time consuming for everyone.
Additionally, future regulation could make the practice of purchasing medications internationally much safer and less expensive than buying locally. While regulation of information posted on the Internet may not be feasible, regulation of medications sold internationally could be. Currently each country has their own version of the FDA and their regulations only apply to medications sold internally. While changes can be made to the current regulations could certainly make Internet purchases much safer, an international regulation agency would be able to regulate the trade among countries, and as a result everyone would be protected.
Just as patients search for physical health information, they also readily search for mental health information (Taylor 2003). While the current benefits and concerns of such information are very similar to those associated with physical health, there are also many potential future benefits that must be considered.
When most patients are searching for mental health information online, it is to research symptoms, and compare those to their own symptoms, to see if they warrant a visit to a psychologist or psychiatrist (Taylor 2003). Currently, there are numerous sites that provide quizzes for visitors to take, and using the results the site will either suggest the visitor a visit to a doctor, or that their symptoms do not warrant a visit. Such sites also provide information as to possible treatments for a disease, and other basic information, such as that found on general interest and disease-specific sites.
While the current mental health sites available may not be very different in their attributes to physical health sites, the potential future benefits are great, the most potentially beneficial of which are sites dealing with psychotherapy (Taylor 2003). Just as with physical medicine, the standard of care is not uniform worldwide. However, unlike with physical health, where one does not need to make frequent visits to their physicians, psychotherapy relies heavily on regular visits by the patient. By allowing patients to interact with their provider via the Internet, it negates the need for patients to make a trip to their provider’s office on a regular basis. While such treatment is limited by the availability of the Internet, the benefits are still very there. The Internet also offers the availability of support groups and treatment programs, which may not be widely available.
A current step that many hospitals and physicians are taking with regard to medical technology, and the Internet, is the institution of Internet based medical records. These records have been a great improvement over the previous paper based records, as they allow for easier transfer of records between providers, and as a result improve the standard of care that all patients are receiving. However, there are currently numerous limitations to the use of such internet medical records.
There are currently several different companies that provide the software required for internet medical records (Chadwick 2000). Hospitals and doctors can purchase this software, and once the records have been entered, they have the ability to access their patient’s records via the Internet from any secure location. However, these records are not available to other doctors, or hospitals. Currently, unless a doctor has privileges at a hospital, they are intentionally unable to access that hospital’s medical records (Chadwick 2000). The main reason behind this practice is privacy, which is a great concern with respect to medical records being on the Internet (Schoenberg 2000). However, in order for medical records to be efficiently provided to all healthcare providers that require access, changes need to be made. Although this is not currently the case, advances in the Internet could greatly improve the process of sharing medical records, and therefore improve the standard of care patients receive.
Ideally, patients would not be naive enough to believe everything they read on the Internet. Instead, they should be able to put to use their education and analytical skills to help determine whether or not the information they are reading is relevant to them. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
With the era of the Internet, information is now readily accessible to individuals that are wholly unqualified to analyze and utilize it, which can be very dangerous, and potentially deadly, when applied to medical information and that individual’s health. Now this does not mean that medical information needs to be removed from the Internet or that access should be restricted to certain individuals. Instead, precautions need to be put in place in order to allow both doctors and patients to best use the information they find, in order to improve healthcare.
Currently, anyone can post information on the Internet, and with the right wording and a professional looking site, make it appear valid. While removing sites may or may not be legal, a more educated public would be more likely to identify that site as a hoax, and to disregard any information found there.
With additional education, and additional sites dedicated for the use of the general public, while still providing detailed information, patients would not be as tempted to stray beyond their ability to interpret the information available, in order to satisfy themselves that they have obtained all the information that they can. Similarly, doctors need to discuss with their patients what types of information are beneficial, and what types should be ignored. Overall, additional sites that provide accurate information that are geared towards individuals of all education levels, and doctors having frank conversations with their patients as to the benefits and dangers of Internet information, will greatly improve the doctor patient relationship, in addition to improving the quality of healthcare that individuals receive. In the future, patients need to keep an open mind to newly available medical information via the Internet, and focus on both its benefits and potential problems.
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