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Paging Doctor Web

One of our panel members suggested that we ask a question on how people feel about medical information on the internet, so we included questions to that effect in an August 2012 survey.  The results show that:

  • 88% of us have used the internet to find information on a medical problem suffered by themselves or a family member
  • 78% of us think that it is easy to find reliable medical information on the internet.

The fact that so many of us have used the internet to find medical information and most of us think that it's reliable will probably worry many in the health sector.  At the very least, it's a threat to their own livelihoods if people choose to use the internet rather than go to doctors.  It's also pretty clear that a lot of the medical information that is on the internet isn't reliable, just as a lot of the information that is on the internet on any topic isn't reliable.

I guess what really matters, however, is how good we actually are at telling the difference between good information and bad information on the internet.  It certainly is possible to get reliable medical information on the internet (e.g. the Ministry of Health offers http://www.health.govt.nz/yourhealth-topics and the UK's National Health Service offers http://www.nhsdirect.nhs.uk/, and most of us would assume that information offered by official sources like these is accurate), and I'd hope that as people become more familiar with the internet they get better and better at differentiating between the 'good' sites and the 'bad' ones.

The trouble with that is that choosing 'good' or 'bad' sites is very much down to the judgement of individuals, and I've often heard it argued that people are more likely to see information from whatever source as 'good' if it fits with their own preconceptions.  In other words, if a website says something we already suspect is true, then we're more likely to accept that that's true than if it was saying something which contradicted our preconceptions.

This tendency could be trivial in some cases but really quite serious in others.  My understanding is that there is no scientific evidence that remedies like amber beads (for teething), arnica (for bruising) and homeopathy work, but if people want to continue to believe that they do work and use them they're not doing themselves any real harm (although some health professionals regard amber beads as a potential choke hazard).  

It's when people stop using 'conventional' remedies and start using 'unconventional' remedies based on advice they have found on the internet that there's real potential for harm.  This article from Monday is a case in point: http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/health/7600345/Natural-health-practitioner-failed-cancer-patient.   In that case, a natural therapist used iridology to 'treat' a lesion on a woman's face, and failed to inform her that the lesion was likely to be cancerous. 

While I'm on the subject of natural remedies, this time last year we asked New Zealanders about their beliefs in this area:

  • 72% of us believe that arnica reduces bruising
  • 51% of us believe that homeopathic remedies have been scientifically proven to work

I have to be really careful here because it seems likely that many New Zealanders understand the term 'homeopathy' to include a much broader range of natural remedies. The conventional definition of homeopathy, however, involves giving very small doses of highly diluted substances (information sourced from the US Government’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine - http://nccam.nih.gov/health/homeopathy/).  Remedies are often so diluted that not one molecule of the original substance remains - leading to the so-called 'memory of water' concept.    It's interesting that the New Zealand Society of Homeopath's explanation of how it works (http://www.homeopathy.co.nz) mentions '200 years of case reports' but does not mention highly diluted substances. 

Concerns about the possibility of people relying too much on the internet for medical advice should be lessened by the fact that 80% of those who said that they have used the internet to find information on a medical problem said that they also consulted a medical professional.  In other words, the internet was providing extra information, not being the primary source of information.