Health Information on the Internet
Gold Mine or Minefield?
By Adelard Banza
The internet boom of the 1990s spawned more than just new ways to buy pet food and download music. It ushered in the information age where anyone could attain information on almost any topic with just the click of a mouse.
Practically from the beginning, medical information platforms played an integral role in this ecosystem, offering patients readily accessible insights from the privacy of their personal computers.
Today, 80% of internet users totaling 93 million Americans use search engines to look up symptoms for self-diagnosis, a 62% increase since 2001. Indeed, researching health-related information is one of the most popular online activities, and Google receives more than one billion health questions every day.
Simply put, the internet has become a ubiquitous presence in the healthcare industry, as many people see it as a valuable medical resource alongside doctors’ recommendations and established best practices.
Of course, as fake news and misinformation have come to define today’s digital environment, the efficacy of this common practice is increasingly being called into question, leaving it unclear if health information on the internet is a gold mine or a minefield.
According to the Pew Research Center, the vast majority of US adults are online almost constantly, making the internet an excellent place for doctors and medical experts to connect with patients and to provide timely insights into their health outcomes.
Online health information has proven to increase patient engagement in their health outcomes, at once increasing their ability to advocate for their wellbeing and to understand the critical elements of their long-term health.
As a study by JOAO concludes, “Using the Internet to find health information could help empower patients to become more active partners in their own health management, allowing them to better understand medical information by removing the time constraints and potential embarrassment that can occur in a clinical setting.”
The study also found other positive effects, including patient comfort from an increased understanding of medical issues and the ability to promote information from reliable networks.
Taken together, it’s clear that easily accessible, accurate information can yield positive patient outcomes, while supplementing the capabilities of the existing healthcare infrastructure. Of course, its efficacy is contingent upon the ability to capitalize on the internet’s strengths while mitigating its many shortcomings.
Unfortunately, the internet’s most prominent strengths can also be leveraged to sow confusion and diminish patient outcomes. Notably, the internet is broadly unaccountable for its content, allowing misinformation to sit alongside quality information on equal footing.
What’s more, differentiating the difference between misinformation and sound medical insights can be incredibly difficult, leaving untrained patients to synthesize and discern the quality of their online information. As the US National Library of Medicine identifies, “Health information on the internet is often unreliable.”
For example, the dynamics of the internet are largely responsible for the rise of the anti-vaccination movement. In general, there are many reasons that this path is fraught with peril, including:
- Internet users have created a proverbial echo chamber of information that aligns with their biases and preconceptions.
- People are often unable to determine the difference between false or misleading information and authoritative online sources.
- The attention economy incentivizes platforms to present information in ways that may not be the most helpful for improving patient health outcomes.
Moreover, as Rupali J. Limaye, a social scientist at John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told The New York Times, “You may only see your pediatrician a few times a year but you can spend all day on the internet.” In many ways, the internet is our natural environment in the digital age. Still, it will need to be improved upon if it is going to serve as a reliable, helpful source of healthcare information.
More accessible and actionable health information is undoubtedly better for doctors, patients, and communities at large. However, the benefits are contingent on both the quality and availability of this information.
Fortunately, advances in AI and machine learning are making this more possible than ever before. Rather than leaving patients to self-identify the best information available, these technologies can be leveraged to identify and present the best, most timely information directly to patients’ digital platforms.
It’s been more than three decades since the internet was first introduced to the masses, proving that technology can fundamentally reshape our information landscape. Now, AI and machine learning will further its ability, refining the internet’s information offerings and making them more precise, accurate, and available.
When it comes to health outcomes, this could be the differentiating factor that ensures that health information on the internet is a gold mine and not a landmine.