Doctors embrace online health forums

Here and Now

This story was originally reported by PRI’s Here and Now. For more, listen to the audio above.

The internet has become a primary-care provider for many Americans. People have begun to move beyond simply Googling symptoms to interacting with people about their ailments. According to a recent study from the Pew Research Center, 20 percent of Americans have posted information relating to their own health online. “We are seeing people not just want to gather health information,” Susannah Fox, associate director of digital strategy at Pew Internet, told PRI’s Here & Now, “but to share it and even create health information.”

Americans are now starting to use the Internet to track their own health data and look at outcomes for other people. This has created a system of online reviews for everything from medicines to hospital food.

People in these online communities are typically diagnosed with a serious illness. They use their diagnosis to track down other people with the same condition. Fox says that online communities can put people on the same footing as health professionals, helping them identify the best treatment options for their condition.

In the beginning of this trend, doctors were hesitant to endorse online communities. They feared that unreliable health information could be easily spread. Recently, however, doctors have been more comfortable with the idea of researching health information online, because it can help their patients get more informed.

While many doctors still worry about inaccurate health information online, there are some promising trends. Crowdsourcing — the practice of asking a large group of people online a question — has become a common occurrence in many online forums. Fox has found that crowdsourcing tends to weed out bad information. “If somebody posts something false or misleading that they found,” she says, “the crowd kind of swarms it and kills the bad information like a germ.”

There is some concern that this health information could be shared with drug companies for a profit. Fox says that this concern is well founded, especially because there are few regulations about these online forums. She says, “there needs to be a conversation of what people are actually doing online so we can set rules and guidelines that actually reflect the reality of what people are doing.”

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