The jungle of online health information

  • 75 percent of adults have searched online for health-related information in the last year.
  • When faced with an actual or potential diagnosis of cancer, most people are inclined to consult Dr. Google, often before they see a real live medical expert.
  • It’s easy for people to land on a site filled with misinformation that leads them to make decisions that may not be in their best interests,” said Dr. Lidia Schapira, medical oncologist at Stanford University Medical Center.

As a specialist in breast cancer, Dr. Schapira has treated women who decline postoperative therapy with a drug like tamoxifen or an aromatase inhibitor because they read on the web that the treatments are harmful, despite extensive studies showing they can help prevent a breast cancer recurrence. “The conviction about harm is an emotional reaction, and it’s very difficult for a doctor to talk facts through emotions,” she said.

In this case online health information is doing more harm than good.

The search for online health information differs by health condition and who are searching for the information (patient vs. caregiver). A patient, for example, just diagnosed with cancer could be more “emotional” in their search versus a caregiver whgo may be more rational.

People shouldn’t expect a website to replace their physician

The internet offers about two dozen “symptom checkers,” and patients can actually freak themselves out by searching the web for their symptoms and finding cancer as a possible cause. Just about any symptom, from a persistent cough to chronic constipation, can be caused by cancer, but a qualified doctor can readily rule out cancer with a proper medical examination and review of a patient’s personal and family history.

The dangers of not going to a medical professional when a symptom appears can mean the difference between life and sickness. In addition to having completed many years of education and hands-on experience, your doctor knows you, your medical history, family history, risk factors, etc., much better than the internet. The Internet specializes in sites that can look trustworthy even when they post information not supported by scientific evidence.

Where is pharma?

Pharma companies have a great resource at their disposal in though leaders. Brand marketers should reach out to them to both write content and ask them “what do you think patients want to know about this health problem?”

In addition, every pharma website should provide links to credible online health information and warn patients about the dangers of putting off visits to their doctor. In other words pharma needs to cut a big path through the online health information jungle.