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People Still Trust Their Doctors Rather Than the Internet

They'll go online first, but turn to physicians for final decisions, survey shows

WEDNESDAY, March 3 (HealthDay News) -- The Internet has made vast amounts of health information available to the general public, but all that virtual "noise" has made people more likely than ever to trust their doctor with medical decisions, a new survey finds.

"As the environment gets noisier, the more you need the physician to help you decipher that noise," explained Bradford W. Hesse, one of three researchers from the U.S. National Cancer Institute who produced the survey. "Part of noise is there's good information and there's bad information. We have a hard time understanding which is which. But doctors are credible. They've gone through a lot of training, and they can help you sort the good information from the bad."

Published in the March 4 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, the survey of nearly 16,000 people over seven years found that:

  • People's trust in physicians has increased with the ascent of the Internet, while their trust in Internet information has declined slightly over time. Simultaneously, their trust in other sources of health information such as television has plummeted.
  • By a large margin, people take their health questions to the Internet first, performing their own research. Then they take that information to their doctor for discussion.
  • Increasing numbers of people are using e-mail to communicate with their physicians directly.

The study dovetails with previous research showing that the Internet is not replacing the role of doctors in people's health, said Susannah Fox, an associate director of the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project.

Some people had been concerned that the Internet would supplant people's need to visit the doctor, much as Web sites have replaced local travel agents and print newspapers for many, Hesse and Fox said.

This latest research reveals the opposite is occurring.

"There are some institutions that will not budge," Fox said. "The doctor's appointment is an institution that will not budge. People still want someone to help guide them when they're making decisions about an acute disease or managing a chronic illness."

However, the study also shows that people are getting some use from Internet-provided medical information. They are using the Internet as a first source for health questions, for one thing.

"They use both channels," Hesse said. "They go to the Internet first because it's the easy thing to get to, but then they go to the doctor and follow up."

People also are using Web sites to get answers for questions they feel are too minor to bring to their doctor, Fox said.

"When these health questions pop up in people's lives, often they do want to talk to a doctor," Fox said. "But if it's after office hours or a question that doesn't necessarily need expert advice, there are decisions that can be made using information found on the Internet. On the big decisions, for example diagnosis and treatment decisions, people are still relying on health professionals to help them make those very high-stakes decisions."

The increase in e-mail correspondence with physicians, along with a large decrease in people's trust in other sources of information, point to an increasing role the Internet will have in health care, even if that role will remain supplemental to a doctor's authority, Fox said.

"The key is making sure we understand that as mobile devices and broadband proliferate, the conversation is increasingly happening online," she said.

The findings also point to an evolving model of preventive medical care where a person's family physician takes on the role of a "coach," guiding self-motivated patients to better health through their advice and judgment, Hesse said.

"People don't go away when there's technology involved. In this case, they might actually be more needed," he said.

More information

To learn more about evaluating health information on the Internet, visit the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

SOURCES: Bradford W. Hesse, Ph.D., researcher, National Cancer Institute, Bethesda, Md.; Susannah Fox, associate director, Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project, Washington, D.C.; March 4, 2010, New England Journal of Medicine

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