As of December 2017, the United States has more than 312 million (96% of its population) as active internet users, and a quarter of them are online almost constantly. Five years ago, it was estimated that 60% of Americans turned to the internet for health-related information, and although official data are available for this year, it is believed that an even higher proportion is using the internet as a source of health-related information. The health-seeking individuals tend to be younger, more affluent, better educated, and women. But how good is the information?
This is difficult to study thoroughly, but a recent study in JAMA Ophthalmology examined the quality of information on retinal detachment using 3 experts and a predetermined set of questions on several major medical sites such as WebMD, EyeWiki, MedicineNet, and Mayo Clinic, as well as the general-knowledge site Wikipedia. The authors found that useful information can be collected from even general sites such as Wikipedia (at least for this specific eye condition). However, finding trustworthy, specific information about diagnosis and management remains problematic and is not as nuanced as a discussion with an expert in the field. Furthermore, scientific-literature sources of information, such as PubMed, contain information that is not easily digestible by the general public (and as we all know, peer-reviewed published literature is not always correct or reproducible science). The government has recognized the importance of seeking health information on the internet, and the NIH has posted suggestions aimed at the general public on how to evaluate quality and trustworthiness of health-related internet information.
Misinformation is still prevalent (not only on the internet) and it has been said that we should “beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance.” Nevertheless, misinformation it is a reality of life and we are faced with an ever-increasing number of health-information–seeking patients. This will forever be part of the doctor-patient relationship and we have an obligation to help develop medical information for the general public as well as develop our own internet presence.