Patients spend more time reading health info online than with doctor
FARGO -- When Joel Haugen started practicing medicine in 1982, patients would turn to books or ask for advice from neighbors to learn more about their woes.
They still do that research today, said the Essentia Health family medicine physician at the West Acres mall walk-in clinic -- but they're letting the medical encyclopedias gather dust and using WebMD instead.
"Now, it's readily available on their smartphone or their iPad or the Internet, and there's just so much more of it," he said. "It may even make it harder for them to sort that out."
A recent national survey conducted by Makovsky Health and Kelton found the average American spends about 52 hours each year looking up health information online. They average only one hour -- three 20-minute visits -- with their doctor each year.
Haugen said there are advantages to the plethora of information that's now available online, and free resources can help patients quickly get answers to their questions about a diagnosis or prescription.
Still, he said they need to make sure they're finding accurate, reliable information that's not trying to sell a gimmick or an expensive treatment.
Stick with solid info
Monjur Alam, a family medicine physician who practices at Sanford Health's clinic in East Grand Forks, Minn., said the best advice is to look for evidence-based websites.
Organizations that represent specific medical fields often are a good choice, he said. Some examples include the websites of the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Board of Internal Medicine.
"They have it in plain layman's terms, and it's very easy to read and the patients can understand it much better," he said.
Haugen said he advises patients to look for official government sites -- easy to spot because their website address ends with ".gov" -- because they're likely to be free of bias and won't be trying to sell medications or untested theories.
Haugen said patients can learn more about specific conditions through large nonprofit organizations, such as the American Diabetes Association, the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society.
Many health systems now offer information and links through their own websites, too. He said the Rochester, Minn.-based Mayo Clinic has good resources available on its site at www.mayoclinic.com.
Essentia Health patients can find updated information about diseases, treatments and surgeries on its website at www.essentiahealth.org. Like many health providers, Haugen said Essentia subscribes to a third-party service to make sure the information is updated and accurate.
Sanford also has a searchable health database on its site at www.sanford
Both health systems offer options for patients to chat with medical providers and keep track of appointments through their websites.
Haugen said WebMD also has a large amount of information available for free. The popular site does have advertising, he said, but it's "fairly benign" and still a good option.
But he said not all privately run health websites are as reliable, and patients should take the information they find through Google or in a Wikipedia article with a grain of salt.
"If they're trying to sell you something, then I'd certainly be a little leery about what they're promoting because it's self-serving," he said.
The health information that patients can find online has its advantages, often helping them get quick answers to their questions or to better understand what their doctor has told them, Haugen said.
One perk is mental -- many people think of information as "more believable" when they see it in print, whether on a website or in a newspaper article, he said.
But it also can help explain their medical woes to spouses and relatives in a way that everyone can understand and might lead to more productive visits when they do see their doctor, Haugen said.
"It kind of hones down the questions so they may be much more specific and much more directed questions when they have them," he said. "They've already got some understanding of the condition and the words are not quite so foreign to them, so I think it's great."
Still, Haugen said online searches for vague symptoms like a headache could result in the suggestion of an unlikely problem, such as West Nile virus or tumors. It can be difficult to encourage patients to first try standard medical tests to figure out their condition and not immediately decide they need a spinal tap to rule out West Nile, he said.
"You kind of have to sort through it," he said. "They don't have a good understanding maybe of the implications of doing a test or the cost of a test or the risk-benefit of doing tests."
Alam said there's another challenge that comes with the rise of online health resources -- patients who believe they've diagnosed themselves with a wide array of conditions based on a quick Internet search.
"I appreciate that patients are going through lots of anxiety when they have something going on, and they're worrying and they're looking up different conditions," he said. "Many times, many diseases share similar symptoms, so that makes the clinical picture very challenging sometimes. But I think it helps us physicians in some cases."
It's the duty of a physician to take their patients' concerns seriously while also helping them wade through the conflicting information they might find online, Alam said.
Still, there are times when well-meaning patients just need to log off WebMD and get to a doctor, especially if they may be suffering from life-threatening acute conditions like a stroke or heart attack, he said.
"When you're not sure, please go in and get checked out," he said.