Canadians are increasingly turning to the Internet to self-diagnose their medical conditions. That's according to HealthInsider, a national survey of 2,500 Canadians conducted by IBM.
The study found that 37 percent of respondents had used the Internet in an attempt to diagnose themselves, a significant 48 percent increase over IBM's 2003 findings.
Increased use of the Internet for this purpose is a positive trend, says Dr. Ruth Collins-Nakai, president of the Ottawa-based Canadian Medical Association (CMA). "The idea that people are willing to search for their own health-care information is wonderful -- it means they're taking more responsibility for their own health."
But Collins-Nakai warns that people need to be aware that there is a great deal of inaccurate medical information and fringe research on the Web. "Patients do need to make sure the sources they use are credible, valid sources. The quality of medical information available on the Internet is highly variable."
Obtaining information from a questionable online source may wind up creating problems for health-care providers who will need to correct misunderstandings or sort through print-outs of material, she says. "But if patients use a good source, that helps them take better care of themselves."
Most Canadian are in fact aware that medical information found on the Internet is unreliable even as they increasingly turn to it to help them diagnose their own medical problems. According to the IBM survey, the vast majority believe it is difficult to determine if online information can be trusted, and feel improvements to the quality of online medical information are needed.
The survey found that the top criteria Canadians used to determine the validity of health information on a particular Web site are: endorsement by a recognized expert or authority; an affiliation with a credible health organization; or third-party content control, such as accreditation by the government.
"Increasingly, there will be credible sources that doctors themselves will refer patients to," says Collins-Nakai. "In fact, some doctors are creating their own Web sites, like mydoctor.ca, where they can go and place evidence-based information for their patients' reference."
The IBM study also found that more than a quarter of respondents were searching for information online that would help them confirm or question their physician's diagnosis.
Collins-Nakai believes this too is a positive trend, although it represents a shift from the traditional doctor-patient relationship. "I don't see the Internet as competing with doctors. I see this as an evolution, and I see it increasingly occurring over the next few years," she says. That dynamic is changing in any case, she says, as most doctors make decisions in partnership with their patients nowadays. "I think we have to support the idea that patients want to have more of a say in their own care."
The CMA supports initiatives to increase electronic connectivity between health-care providers and their patients, she says, and these in turn will lead to an increase in quality health-care information on the Internet. "We want to support doctors in their practice to ensure they're able to get credible information to their patients."
The IBM survey also found the most Internet-savvy demographic uses the Internet the least to find medical information. Most Canadians between the ages of 15 and 24 don't use the Internet to search health-related information.