October 2016Research at the Lady Davis Institute

Looking for healthcare info online? Go ahead, but be careful

If you think you’re sick, based on something you’ve read online, Dr. Reem el Sherif has a word to share with you: cyberchondria.

That’s not to say your self-diagnosis is wrong. But, as Dr. el Sherif has found in the course of her research, the internet is crammed with inaccurate and potentially harmful advice. As people take greater responsibility for their own care, it’s natural for them to search for information online. But distinguishing the reputable from the disreputable can often be difficult.

It is estimated that more than 70 per cent of internet users have searched for healthcare information online, says Dr. el Sherif, a graduate student and researcher in family medicine in the Lady Davis Institute and the Goldman Herzl Family Practice Centre at the JGH.

This has motivated her to take a closer look at how patients find and use the information that they uncover on their own.

How to find better medical information online

Participants in the study by Dr. Reem el Sherif proposed three ways of overcoming the negative aspects of searching for medical information on the web:

  • directing patients to reliable online consumer health information
  • educating patients on how to assess the reliability of healthcare web sites
  • providing patients with advice on how to talk to their healthcare professionals, healthcare librarians and their social networks about the information they find on their own

“There’s actually a phenomenon known as cyberchondria, where people imagine they’re sick, based on what they read online,” she says. “So we wanted to determine the extent of negative outcomes that could be linked to web-based health research from a patient’s perspective.”

Among Dr. el Sherif’s goals is to identify strategies that encourage patients to enhance their knowledge of—and access to—online resources that relate to their well-being, as long as negative consequences are minimized.

Her findings revealed three types of negative outcomes of searching for healthcare information online:

  • internal—for instance, causing oneself to feel anxiety
  • interpersonal—for example, creating tension in the patient-physician relationship
  • service-related—that is, postponing clinical encounters or excessive emergency room visits

“Literacy about health and a basic understanding of internet search principles are of key importance,” Dr. el Sherif emphasizes. “For example, it’s important to know that the first couple of Google hits are not objectively the best sites. You need some basic information to be able to judge the source you’re consulting.”

At the Jewish General Hospital, patient information specialists guide individuals by giving them tips about which internet sites can be relied upon for accuracy. Online support is available through the JGH Patient & Family Resource Centre, while in-person assistance is available in the Health Sciences Library on the second floor of Pavilion A (Côte-des-Neiges entrance). “We welcome patients’ efforts to understand their own health,” says JGH Librarian Linda Lei, who has been working with oncology patients since 2008.

Patients need to be especially cautious about making treatment decisions based solely on internet searches, Dr. el Sherif warns. “People are biased to confirm what they want to find in a search. Someone who is looking for reassurance will find that; someone who is anxious will find sites that exaggerate the seriousness of their symptoms.

“The web can definitely be a guide and a supplement, but it is not a substitute for consulting a healthcare professional. It can form the basis of a conversation with a doctor, and doctors really appreciate a well-informed patient. However, the specifics of any individual’s condition require an examination.”

Indeed, most of the participants in Dr. el Sherif’s survey concluded that on experiencing a symptom, their best course of action was to see a doctor, get a diagnosis and then do an internet search. They felt this was preferable to Googling a symptom in order to decide whether to see a doctor. Most also admitted they could have been spared anxiety if they had consulted a physician before searching.

“The most commonly reported reason for starting with an internet search was the difficulty of consulting a physician,” Dr. el Sherif says. “The length of time it takes to get an appointment or the inconvenience of going to the Emergency Department definitely dissuaded people from seeking care.”

In general, she concludes, the experience of online health research is positive, since patients are usually able to get useful advice and have their anxiety relieved.

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