Docs should help patients understand bevy of 'medical' info available on Internet

Patients often turn to the Internet to obtain information about virtually any medical condition these days. But it's often of dubious fact or too clinical for laypersons to understand, making physicians a vital part of this process, concludes an article published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine.

"[I]nformation and knowledge do not equal wisdom, and it is too easy for nonexperts to take at face value statements made confidently by voices of authority," write authors Pamela Hartzband and Jerome Groopman, physicians at Boston's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. "Physicians are in the best position to weigh information and advise patients, drawing on their understanding of available evidence as well as their training and experience."

Consider patients who use chat rooms to seek out medical information, only to be baited into clicking on links that lead to further  "unsubstantiated" information or remedies, the authors write. Doctors then must convince patients of the falsehoods of such claims, at the risk of appearing "closed-minded."

"Material is perceived as factual merely because it is on a computer screen....[T]he web is perilous for anyone prone to hypochondria," they write.

Of course, patients also come across valid information about new cutting-edge treatments--sometimes before their own physicians have even heard of them, they acknowledge.

Hence, another recently published report encourages increased online activity for patients, particularly those with chronic diseases, and notes how patients in isolated areas can use chat rooms to organize support groups and connect with others whom they wouldn't otherwise meet.

"[T]hose who are online have a trump card," concludes author Susannah Fox of the Pew Research Center. "They have each other... [H]aving a chronic disease increases the probability that an Internet user will share what they know and learn from their peers." 

To learn more about each view:
- here's the NEJM article
- read the Pew Internet report