Patient Education on the Internet: Opportunities and Pitfalls

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Abstract

The Internet, an increasingly pervasive part of our culture, has vastly increased the rate at which information is disseminated. Unfortunately, a substantial portion of medical information on the Internet is false or misleading. Realizing this, many patients would like their physicians to help guide their online searches for medical information, but most physicians do not feel comfortable enough with the Internet to provide this service. A recent poll by Cyberdialogue (2000) found that 70% of all patients would like their physicians to recommend a health care web site for their condition, but that only 4% of patients receive such a recommendation. In recommending medical web sites, physicians need to consider the quality of the web site, the quality of the content, and especially the ethics of the site. The most important ethical standard a web site must meet is the clear separation of its editorial comment from promotional material. Patients do not have enough knowledge to distinguish unbiased information from information designed to push a product or service. There are organizations such as the Health on the Net Foundation and the E-Health Code of Ethics that have established clear quality and ethical criteria, but very few resources exist for these organizations to use in policing the sites that claim to adhere to their criteria. The National Institutes of Health recently started a consumer web site (www.medlineplus.gov) that takes web sites that adhere to their stringent criteria and places them on their web site, thus ensuring proper compliance. Patient education from sources other than face-to-face contact with a physician should be seen as an adjunct to the medical practice of physicians, and not as competition. Information is a form of therapy, and should lead to better referrals, more realistic outcome expectations, better treatment compliance, and better outcomes. As long as patients are referred to information that is unbiased, well-written, and not proprietary, their decision making should be enhanced, bringing them into the decision-making loop. This allows the patient to be much more involved with his or her care. As the medical profession changes from a “gatekeeper” model to a patient choice model, patient education will take on a much greater role.

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