- The Washington Times - Monday, October 30, 2006

Using the Internet as a resource for medical advice is not uncommon, but it can be dangerous.

A survey released yesterday by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that most Americans who search online for health information do not subsequently seek advice from a medical professional.

Eighty percent of U.S. Internet users said they have searched the Internet for health information, the study found, but only one-third of them talked with a doctor or other health professional about the information they found online.

Daily Internet searches for health information are becoming as commonplace as paying a bill, reading a blog or looking up a phone number, said Susannah Fox, lead researcher on the survey.

But doctors and federal regulators aren’t excited about health inquiries ending when people log off their computers.

“People need more guidance about evidence-based Web sites,” said Edward Hill, former president of the American Medical Association. “I’m very concerned about self-interpretation of the information from the Web site.”

The Internet can keep patients better informed, Dr. Hill said, but it also presents a risk of people self-diagnosing or self-medicating based solely on the material they find online. About 3 million Americans say they or someone they know have been seriously harmed by following the advice they got online, the survey found.

Adding to the concern, 74 percent of people who seek health information online felt “reassured” that they could make appropriate health care decisions based on that.

“People may not be following research protocol that doctors want them to, but they are finding what they need and are feeling really good about it,” Mrs. Fox said.

The survey also found that the number of people checking the source and date of health information found online has dropped 15 percent since 2001. Health professionals, along with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, are trying to increase the number of health-related Web sites that disclose information that can be used to assess the quality of the site.

Of the 102 frequently visited health-information Web sites reviewed by the government, just 4 percent disclosed the source of the information on their pages.

Last week, WebMD.com was the most-searched Web site under the health and medical care category, according to Hitwise, an Internet monitoring firm.

Other popular health and medical Web sites include weightwatchers.com, msnhealth.com and the Web site for the National Library of Medicine.

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