The Importance of Reliable Online Health Information

If, as they say, ‘an apple a day helps keep the doctor away’, consumers are increasingly looking for that apple online, in the form of reliable health information.

According to the latest research, eight out of 10 Internet users have, at one time or another, searched for health info on the Web, in part because they feel their healthcare needs are not being adequately addressed by increasingly busy physicians.

With patients now receiving generally less than 15 minutes of face time with their physician during an average office appointment, any additional resource that enhances the patient-doctor relationship should be given serious consideration. Perhaps the time has come for doctors to throw out those old magazines that clutter up their waiting rooms and replace them with a bank of Internet-ready computers, preferably with a resource-rich website of their own set as the default homepage.

There is plenty of evidence that putting trustworthy health information at their fingertips will make for better informed patients who are willing and able to take on more of the responsibility for their own health and wellness. As early as 2000, the Pew Internet and American Life Project reported that half the people who have used the Internet to get health and medical information say this information improved the way they take care of themselves. These Internet users said the information drawn from the Web helped them decide how to treat an illness, prepped them to ask more questions of their doctors or seek second opinions, and even helped them decide whether to go to the doctor or not.

Today there are literally thousands of websites devoted to health and wellness, including many operated by or for government agencies and departments. Despite this, identifying quality patient information isn’t always easy. Many surveys find that the search strategies of online health seekers are scattershot. While consumers generally report that the last time they went hunting online for health information they got the facts they needed, they relied on Internet searches without the benefit of professional advice and often got information from Web sites they had never heard of before they began the search.

"This should be a wake-up call to medical professionals: Patients are action-oriented when they go online for health information and they will search for it any way they can," said Susannah Fox, the principal author of one study. "They would probably like help from their doctors in pointing them to the best places for these Internet searches and they really want doctors to answer the questions that emerge during that research about how to treat the sick."

How you can help your patients online

Healthcare providers can leave their patients at the whim of search engines or can direct healthcare consumers to sites known to be reliable. Better yet, they can provide their own quality health information to complement the advice they give to patients during office visits.

While few hospitals and even fewer doctors have the time or resources necessary to devote to writing, editing, reviewing and publishing their own consumer-oriented health information online, it is possible to license such content from companies such as Prescient Digital Media.

Prescient helped establish the award-winning website,, for the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care in Ontario, Canada; producing thousands of quality, medically-reviewed consumer-oriented health articles, as well as a drugs and conditions database. This content was well-received by both consumers and medical professionals and helped win a prestigious Webby from the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences as Best Government website in the world. Prescient also won a Gold Quill award from the International Association of Business Communicators for Best Writing, not least because of its ability to strip medical jargon from health information so that it is not only current and accurate, but also easy to understand.

When it comes to trustworthiness of online health information, one also has to look at what commercial interests may be lurking in the shadows. By licensing content that is free of such perceived pressure, the reliability of information is inherently enhanced.

Online health information can and should be treated warily if it has not been medically-reviewed. Regardless of the knowledge and ability of a top lay writer, a healthcare professional needs to give the content his or her seal of approval before it carries any real weight. Thus, we see doctors now reporting medical news on television. While this undoubtedly enhances the credibility of the news organization in question – it, more importantly, ensures accuracy and helps maintain proper perspective. All content from Prescient Digital’s eHealth division is reviewed by licensed doctors and pharmacists.

When it comes to online health information, licensed content is just one side of the equation. Prescient is currently engaged by a major Canadian health authority to provide exclusive content for a new mental health website to be launched later this year. With a project of this nature, it is critical to develop a trusted relationship early on and develop content that meets the specific needs of the client. This extends not only to the printed word but also to multimedia elements such as video and Flash presentations. Ensuring the accuracy and relevance of such content becomes a dual responsibility of the content provider and the client, in much the same way as doctors and patients need to work together to ensure health care does not start nor stop with a quick 15 minute office visit. Providing patients with credible online health information can ensure a deepening of the patient-doctor relationship and, perhaps even the success of any recommended treatment.