- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 16, 2003

They are called “e-patients” and “health seekers” — the millions who sit before computer screens, methodically chasing down the latest updates on aggravating medical conditions, serious surgeries, diet fads, alternative treatments.

Eighty percent of Internet users, or 93 million Americans, have looked for health information online. It’s the third-most-popular activity on the Web besides e-mailing and product research, according to a survey released yesterday by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

All this newfound medical knowledge is likely to affect doctor-patient relationships, and some doctors may not welcome a “partner” who could second-guess a diagnosis.

“Knowledge is power,” wrote one respondent. “It helps me feel prepared to talk to the doctors and nurses. I know the terminology and options.”

All these e-patients are getting mighty deft in their searches.

Women are the leaders here, with 85 percent using the Internet to find health information, versus 75 percent of men. Two-thirds of all users seek advice on specific illnesses and almost half look for the proper treatments. In addition, 57 percent wanted information on behalf of loved ones or friends.

Diseases and treatments were the top two topics for research, according to the survey, with diet, exercise, prescription or over-the-counter drugs, alternative treatments, health insurance, depression or anxiety, specific doctors or hospitals, and experimental treatments rounding out the top 10.

Online information “takes the mystery out of illness and gives the patient a sense of power about the condition,” wrote one respondent.

“I am less afraid now,” wrote another.

Overall, 73 percent said the Internet had improved the quality of health services they received. They became more informed both as patients and caregivers, a fact confirmed by the June issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, which called the Internet a “significant resource” for educating patients.

Some folks are indeed comforted online, with 54 percent — or 63 million Americans — having found support groups for their medical challenges, from obesity to drug reactions.

They approach it with “enthusiasm and even passion,” the survey found, e-mailing practical information or sympathetic comments back and forth.

But it is still an imperfect art.

Some of the respondents caution against Web sites that sell “snake oil” or push the opinions of “quacks,” and they fret over privacy concerns.

Where do doctors fit in with all this?

Only 7 percent of the respondents said they would e-mail relevant details about their conditions to their doctors. Patient insight is met by “mixed reviews,” with some doctors uncomfortable with their suggestions or ideas.

Still, exam-room acrimony has a positive side, the survey found, citing a University of Indiana study that found doctors spent an average of 10 extra minutes with people who brought “online health information to an appointment.”

The medical establishment is warming to the whole idea, though doctors “are concerned about the shift in medical, legal, administrative and technological procedures” posed by online consultations.

“What is the role of e-mail correspondence in diagnoses; what are the implications in malpractice suits?” the survey asked. Doctors, too, may have to restructure fees and insurance and reconfigure filing systems to include e-mailed information.

The Pew survey of 2,038 adults was conducted from Nov. 25 to Dec. 22.

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