MD vs. WebMD: The Internet in Medical Decisions (Dec-10)

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With just a simple search term and a click of the mouse, a person can find a large amount of health information on the Internet. What role does the Internet play in how patients make medical decisions? Does using the Internet as a source for information to help patients make informed decisions vary by health condition? Does the Internet substitute for detailed discussions with a health care provider?

Consider the following:

Imagine that you recently visited your health care provider for an annual physical examination. During the exam your doctor told you that you are at the age where you should start thinking about getting a screening test for colon cancer. In this conversation your health care provider explained some of the reasons why you should get screened. At the end of the visit, you had more information about screening tests for colon cancer but had not yet decided whether or not you wanted to get tested.

As you think about how you would make a decision about whether or not to get screened for colon cancer:
How important is your health care provider as a source of information about screening tests for colon cancer?
Not at all important (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7) (8) (9) (10) Extremely important
Would you use, or have someone else use for you, the Internet to find information on screening tests for colon cancer?
  • Yes
  • No
  • Don't know
How important is the Internet as a source of information screening tests for colon cancer?
Not at all important (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7) (8) (9) (10) Extremely important

How do your answers compare?

In a recent study published in the journal Medical Decision Making, CBSSM investigators Brian Zikmund-FisherMick Couper, and Angela Fagerlin examined Internet use and perceived importance of different sources of information by patients making specific medical decisions.

In this study, US adults aged 40 years and older were asked about how they got information about 9 common medical decisions, including decisions about common prescription medication (for high blood pressure, cholesterol, and depression), cancer-screening tests (for colorectal, breast, and prostate cancer), and elective surgeries (for lower back pain, cataracts, and knee/hip replacement). In addition, they study compared participants' ratings of the Internet as a source of information with their ratings of other sources, such as their health care provider.

So, how did your responses compare to the average adult in this study's population?

Results from this study showed that most patients did not use the Internet to make specific medical decisions like the ones you considered. On average, about 26% of participants made use of the Internet for information to make decisions about colon cancer screening tests and about 47% used it to inform a decision about lower back pain surgery.

Among participants who chose to use the Internet for finding information about specific medical decisions, data show that Internet use varies significantly across different types of medical decisions. Internet users were more likely to use the Internet for information related to elective surgery (36%), such as lower back pain surgery, and prescription medication (32%) than for cancer-screening decisions (22%), such as colon cancer screening.

Another element of this study looked at participants' ratings of different information sources. You are unlike other participants in this study in that you did not consistently rate health care providers as the most important source for information about colon cancer screening and lower back pain surgery. The CBSSM study found that, for both Internet users and nonusers, health care providers were rated highest as a source for information for all 9 decisions studied. Among Internet users, however, the Internet was rated as their 2nd-most important source of information.

The researchers found that Internet use to inform specific medical decisions varied by age ranging from 38% for those aged 40 to 49 years to 14% for those aged 70 years or older. Approximately 33% of 50 to 59 year olds used the Internet to make these medical decisions and 24% for those in the 60 to 69 year age category. This result is consistent with previous research on the demographics of Internet use.

The study authors concluded that the Internet has an impact on people's access to health care information; however, "the data suggest that access is not the same as use, and use for one medical decision does not imply use for all health decisions." In other words, people use the Internet differently depending on the context. The authors end by stating, "Clinicians, health educators, and health policy makers need to be aware that we remain a long way away from having Internet-based information sources universally used by patients to improve and support the process of medical decision making."

For the full text of this article:

Couper M, Singer E, Levin CA, Fowler F, Fagerlin A, Zikmund-Fisher BJ. Use of the internet and ratings of information sources for medical decisions: Results from the DECISIONS survey. Medical Decision Making 2010;30:106S-114S.