Trolling the Internet for health information, says Donald Kemper, chief executive of the health information firm Healthwise, is a lot like hunting through the woods for mushrooms. There are plenty of delicious morsels out there "and enough danger to give pause."
Kemper has a radical solution to end patients' exhausting, disorienting and hazardous Web searches. Doctors should write "information prescriptions" that direct patients away from e-health's more suspect specimens and to the more wholesome and nutritious health information on the Internet.
Kemper and Molly Mettler, a senior vice president at Idaho-based Healthwise, have laid out a manifestation their book "Information Therapy: Prescribed Information as a Reimbursable Medical Service."
The book urges doctors to harness technology for patients by administering "information therapy" an "Ix" to accompany the usual Rx rather than send them out alone to sort through the glut of Web health pages.
According to a Harris poll released in May, 110 million Americans have looked for health information on the Internet. More than a third said they judge the validity of what they find on their own.
"Information therapy needs to use information that's prescription-strength," researched enough and evidence-based enough to make a difference in the care of a patient, Mettler said.
The medical community always prefers having a well-informed patient, but when that information comes from a Web site it might need to be filtered. Few doctors have the time to see patients and review every Web site and provide a list of resources to patients, said Dr. John Mackel, vice president of medical affairs at St. Francis Medical Center in Cape Girardeau.
He believes medical societies and professional groups could take a lead role in providing that information.
Finding information in the Internet is "buyer beware. You can't believe everything you read, and now, you can't believe everything you see," he said.
With almost 6 million people searching the Internet for health information, people need to make sure they find reputable sites. "The Internet can help get a lot of information out there, and help you be a more informed patient and that makes you a better patient, but it will never replace a doctor," said Joni Adams, webmaster for Southeast Missouri Hospital's site.
Using the Internet for health information has an undisputed value, Kemper said. If you ask a physician what's the most valuable thing they do for their patient, most say it is the advice they give, he said. "Ask a patient what's the most important thing they get from their doctor, and it's the same thing."
Features editor Laura Johnston contributed to this report.
The figures below show the percentage of adults who took various actions as a result of reading health information on the Web.
Discussed information with doctor: 38%
Took over-the-counter medication: 23%
Asked doctor for prescription medication: 14%
Made appointment to see doctor: 14%
Started alternative treatment: 9%
SOURCE: Harris Interactive, January 2002