Online health info balances power between patients, docs

Online health information can empower patients and even shift the balance of power between patients and their doctors, according to an article at the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

The study is based on focus groups with 32 participants recruited from an arthritis research center in British Columbia, Canada. Participants were asked to talk about the types of online health sites they visited as well as how the information they gleaned affected their relationships with their doctors.

The participants looked to sites that include university and medical webpages, as well as social media sites (Twitter and Facebook), chat rooms and other sites for information on research and treatment options, medication self-management strategies and resources.

Three predominant themes emerged from the discussions: the changing roles patients have with their doctors, partnership in their healthcare and tensions and burdens.

About the changing roles, one participant said, "Before we would accept what the doctor said, but in the last 10 years, we've had access to the information and now we question more." Along with more information, patients reported the need to be better prepared to discuss issues with their doctor based on what they learned online.

The study's participants, all of whom had multiple chronic health conditions, discussed teamwork and emphasized the importance of effective communication with multiple doctors.

One patient conveyed how online information equipped her to change the power balance, be heard and get support from her doctors, saying online information is "ammunition."

The participants also noted downsides, such as feeling overwhelmed and frustrated with the amount of information to wade through.

Recent research from Northwestern University stressed the need for accurate information online as teens increasingly turn to the Internet for health information. In addition, an article in Medical Economics on dealing with "Dr. Google" urges physicians to help patients find accurate information.

Physicians in the British Columbia study, however, found time constraints among the barriers to doing so.

To learn more:
- read the article