March 4, 2010

All Together Now: The Internet Does Not Replace Health Professionals

The March 4 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine includes a letter from Brad Hesse, Richard Moser, and Lila Rutten, three National Cancer Institute researchers whose work is a continual inspiration to me.

Their analysis of data from the Health Information National Trends Survey (HINTS) shows that the vast majority of Americans, “despite a decade’s worth of exposure to health information on the internet,” continue to trust physicians. Don’t you just love the word “exposure,” as if the internet is an infection let loose on the population?

Another favorite passage includes a citation of a 2008 study: Does the Internet displace health professionals? Yes? No? I’ll never know since it’s behind a pay wall, but I suspect it is being cited with the same “silly rabbit” tone I’m seeing associated with that awesome 1995 Clifford Stoll “hype alert” article making the rounds this week. Hesse, Moser, and Rutten seem to be reassuring NEJM readers: Don’t worry, you are still #1 in your patients’ hearts.

But hold the smartphone: Guess which source consistently comes out on top when people are asked where they actually turn first for cancer information? The internet!

The HINTS data dovetails with one of Pew Internet’s consistent findings:

The internet does not replace health professionals.

But the kinds of health information sought and found online are different from what people can glean from most traditional sources.

Six in ten e-patients access peer-generated health information such as blog posts, doctor/hospital ratings, podcasts, or customized health news updates.

The HINTS researchers conclude by connecting their findings on doctor-patient communication to national health IT investment. Sure, that’s a valid finding, but I think they are being too modest. HINTS and Pew Internet data show that the internet offers much more than doctor-patient communication. It is a just-in-time information device that people can tap into wherever they are, whenever they need it, connecting with whatever source they believe will help them at that moment. And that source is not always a doctor.

Please join the discussion on e-patients.net