Patients using the Internet to obtain health information: how this affects the patient-health professional relationship

Miriam McMullan
Patient Education and Counseling 2006, 63 (1): 24-8

OBJECTIVE: Health information is one of the most frequently sought topics on the Internet. A review of the literature was carried out to determine the use of the Internet for health information by the patient and how this could affect the patient-health professional relationship.

METHODS: This study is a literature review, summarizing multiple empirical studies on a single subject and is not intended to be a meta-analysis.

RESULTS: The review showed that the majority of health related Internet searches by patients are for specific medical conditions. They are carried out by the patient: (1) before the clinical encounter to seek information to manage their own healthcare independently and/or to decide whether they need professional help; (2) after the clinical encounter for reassurance or because of dissatisfaction with the amount of detailed information provided by the health professional during the encounter.

CONCLUSION: There has been a shift in the role of the patient from passive recipient to active consumer of health information. Health professionals are responding to the more 'Internet informed' patient in one or more of three ways: (1) the health professional feels threatened by the information the patient brings and responds defensively by asserting their 'expert opinion' (health professional-centred relationship). (2) The health professional and patient collaborate in obtaining and analysing the information (patient-centred relationship). (3) The health professional will guide patients to reliable health information websites (Internet prescription).

PRACTICE IMPLICATIONS: It is important that health professionals acknowledge patients' search for knowledge, that they discuss the information offered by patients and guide them to reliable and accurate health websites. It is recommended that courses, such as 'patient informatics' are integrated in health professionals' education.

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