Because we are interested in the internet’s impact on the entire population, we asked the following question of all adults, not just internet users:
Thirty-six percent of adults living with chronic disease say they or someone they know has been helped by following medical advice or health information found on the internet, compared with 45% of adults reporting no diseases.
Very few adults, regardless of health status, say they or someone they know has been harmed by following medical advice or health information found on the internet (2% of adults living with chronic disease, compared with 3% of adults with no chronic disease).
While one would expect chronic e-patients to be more likely to say they have been helped by information they find online, people living with chronic disease are surrounded by thorny issues which may not be as easily solved as the health questions posed by people dealing with more run-of-the-mill concerns. When the stakes are high or the outlook is grave, help may be more measured and breakthroughs few and far between. In addition, someone dealing with a new, life-changing diagnosis has different information needs and expectations than someone who is already living the long, hard slog of a chronic condition.
Indeed, one person wrote, "I keep looking to find something new to help me function better but new information doesn't come very quickly. The most helpful use of the internet is getting new research articles."
Another e-patient warned about the dangers of online health information: "It's important to be able to distinguish between reliable and unreliable sources of information on the Internet. Because of my background, I am usually able to do that… I know quite a few people who, in my opinion, have been harmed by bad health information. However, they tend to be people who rely unquestioningly on opinions of friends and/or so-called alternative health practitioners and do NOT take the time to conduct their own research."
In some cases, basic advice is what makes the difference. One woman wrote, "I was having very little progress in controlling my and my husband’s sugar count as we are diabetics. After looking at various websites we are doing much better at staying active, eating reduced portions and controlling the amount of carbohydrates. We have found the best times to take our various medicines [and] we get good reminders on how we can make changes to improve our health."