Have you seen the comical advertisement for an auto-insurance company that currently appears on television? Two friends are standing on the sidewalk discussing a fender bender. When one friend makes an obviously false statement, the other asks, “Where’d you hear that?” The reply: “On the Internet. They can’t put anything on the Internet that’s not true!”
Well, that hasn’t been our experience. In fact, we wrote a blog post about how difficult it can be to discern between reliable information and the hype, bias, and misinformation that can be found on some consumer health-content websites.
Knowing how easy it is for bias and inaccuracies to infiltrate consumer health information and influence patients’ opinions about the healthcare they might receive, we were troubled by a recent online article. Digital diagnosis: why doctors encourage online searches discussed the growing trend for doctors to encourage consumers to seek out health and medical information online. We don’t disagree that consumers are spending more time online looking for medical information. We wonder, though, whether doctors really support patients doing so.
It’s our business to evaluate the evidence, and we’ve been doing it for more than 2 decades. We know how tough it can be to separate fact from fiction, especially when it comes to new and emerging treatments that often have a limited evidence base with regard to their relative effectiveness and impact on clinical outcomes. And we’re trained in scientific research methodology, applied statistics, and health technology assessment. What about everyday consumers looking for the best approach to newly diagnosed diseases? Imagine how hard it must be for them to sift through the plethora of information out there to find objective, accurate information that pertains to them.
If healthcare professionals are indeed encouraging their patients to search online, then we hope they are guiding them to reputable sites rather than sites that may present subtly biased information because of their connections to pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturers. The National Institutes of Health (NIH); Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); and the Mayo Clinic are just a few of the reputable sites out there. We want to point out, however, that WebMD, a site mentioned in Digital diagnosis: why doctors encourage online searches, was investigated in 2010 by Senator Charles Grassley because of its admitted connections to pharmaceutical and other companies and the commercial way in which it presented health information.
We’re all for patient-centered care and we agree that patients should take an active role in the healthcare they receive. We are doing a disservice to our patients, however, if we expect that they will be able to sort out fact from fiction about what is good for them without guidance and support.