Despite increasingly significant influence on care, Internet health resources should be taken for what they are: in their infancy.
Pre-Internet, physicians and clinicians wielded the knowledge and power, and patients waited passively for their diagnosis. By 2012 the Web had transformed the relationships between patient and clinicians. Informed and inspired by health websites, many patients research their own symptoms and often enter the doctors' office knowing which questions to ask. While acknowledging the benefits of these websites, some physicians question their overall effect and veracity.
These physicians claim that health websites can be inaccurate, incomplete or outdated and patients can be misled when self-diagnosing. How beneficial are Web MD, Everyday Health and the other sites, and how skeptical should consumers be?
Nielsen reported that in July of this year, 97.5 million Americans (nearly one of three adults) used health websites to obtain information. The most popular among them, Web MD Health Network, attracted 25.2 million monthly visitors. Close behind, Everyday Health Network saw 23.4 million, and Livestrong 11.8 million.
Susannah Fox, the associate director of the Pew Research Center's Internet Project who oversaw its 2011 "Peer-to-Peer Healthcare" study about chronic illness and Internet health use, says, "People often go online before they see a doctor and after they see a doctor, preparing for an appointment or recovering after a doctor's appointment." Patients search online to familiarize themselves with medical terms, obtain information on medications, or research questions that they neglected to ask their physician or nurse. In many cases, consumers dig for material on behalf of someone else (mothers, spouses, friends).