Abstract

Little is known about what patients expect from their physicians regarding using the Internet to find health information. Some physicians are hesitant to recommend the Internet as a reliable source of health information due to concerns about the quality of information provided. However, this study found that a majority of patients expect their physicians to recommend web sites to learn more about their health and/or medical condition. To address concerns about the quality of health information available on the Internet, physicians could utilize existing resources developed and maintained by other trusted organizations to recommend websites to patients. Background: In 2003, approximately 80% of adult Internet users in the United States reported using the Internet to access health information. But, little is known about what patients expect from their physicians regarding these searches. Previous research revealed that physicians tend to discourage the Internet as a source of medical information, citing concerns over the quality and reliability of the information. Some health care providers do believe, however, that they should provide patients with a list of reliable websites. The purpose of this study was to gain a better understanding of what guidance patients expect from their physicians regarding accessing health information over the Internet. The authors believe that a better understanding of patients' expectations regarding physician guidance in the use of the Internet might improve the physician-patient relationship and encourage shared decisionmaking processes.

Methods: Patients from four primary care internal medicine practices completed self-administered surveys. The survey questions measured demographic, general health status, and behavioural factors. Patient's frequency and use of the Internet to find health information was measured using standard survey items.

Findings: A total of 330 out of 494 patients approached completed the survey. The average age of the respondents was 46 years; the majority was women (77.5%) and more than half were college graduates. The majority were white (92.3%), had health insurance (92%), had a primary care physician (94%), and reported having at least one chronic medical condition (77.5%).

Of the 330 respondents, more than half (51%) indicated that they had used the Internet to find health information. Of the patients who reported using the Internet to find health information, 62% believed that their physician should recommend specific web sites to help them find health information, although only 28% told their physician about the health information they found online. Very few patients reported having been asked by their physician about their Internet use (4.7%), and only 3% had been recommended by their physician to use the Internet as a source of medical information.

Conclusions: Even though patients use the Internet to search for health information, few communicate what they find with their physicians. This lack of communication may affect how patients make decisions regarding their care. A majority of patients expect their physician to recommend specific web sites where they can learn more about their health. This suggests that patients want guidance from a health care provider to identify and find reliable and quality health information on the Internet.

One challenge is that some physicians may be hesitant to recommend web sites because of concerns regarding the quality and reliability of the available health information and may not have the time to find and review health web sites. This challenge could be overcome if hospitals, public health bodies, governments, or other health organizations maintained and distributed a list of web sites that was regularly reviewed for the quality and reliability of available health information. Physicians and nurses could then refer to this list and recommend sites to their patients.

Reference: Diaz JA, Sciamann CN, Evangelou E, Stamp MJ, Ferguson T. "Brief Report: What types of Internet guidance do patients want from their physicians?" Journal of General Internal Medicine, 2005; 20: 683-685.