A new poll by Harris Interactive reports that the number of Americans looking to the Internet for health care information has doubled to 98 million since 1998.
Fifty-six percent of U.S. adults logged on to the Internet from homes, offices, colleges and other places, the study said. Of that total, 86 percent use the Internet to look up information either on health care or specific diseases. The figure is up from 71 percent in 1998.
The frequency of usage varied: 13 percent of the people surveyed said they looked up health information for themselves and family members “often,” while 40 percent said they looked “sometimes” and 33 percent said “very occasionally.”
Future is Now
Doctors, hospitals and pharmacies currently operate thousands of health sites on the Web, with more arriving online daily.
“The reality is that e-care is not a futuristic concept,” said Douglas Goldstein, president of eHealthCare.net. “It is here now.”
The sheer number of sites make policing and regulation difficult, particularly with regard to online pharmacies. Last year, a U.S. Congressional committee identified 400 pharmacies operating online.
Health experts say many of the sites are unscrupulous, citing the examples of illegal and ineffective AIDS tests that might have led some people to think they were not infected when in fact they were. In another example, a 53-year old Chicago man with a heart condition died after taking Viagra without a proper physical examination.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warns consumers to stay away from unscrupulous online pharmacies and includes instructions on how to report suspicious sites. It also asks them to report any suspicious sites and side effects resulting from drugs bought online.
The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP) also maintains a Web site that lists the legitimate online pharmacies it certifies, and the American Medical Association (AMA) has launched its own site to help doctors keep patients informed.
Doctors Slow to Use Internet
Physicians have been slow to use the Internet to communicate with their patients — currently, less than two percent of doctors use e-mail with patients. However, doctors have been using the Internet to communicate with suppliers and insurance companies.
A recent study of 257 doctors by WebSurveyMD found that only a third expressed significant interest in communicating with their patients online. The study also found that there was little difference between the beliefs of younger physicians and their older counterparts, historically a dividing line in Internet usage patterns.
Only 27 percent of doctors believe the Internet will save the health care system money in the next five years.
Still, there is a significant movement by hospitals to give patients access to records online and some experts, such as Goldstein, believe that by 2005 the majority of doctors and hospitals will be operating Web sites for health knowledge, product sales and actual medical delivery.
Some hospitals have already developed sites where patients can download results of their own X-rays or medical tests, send their doctors questions via e-mail over secured links and even make appointments. With this growing access to information, however, comes new privacy issues and fears that patients could misinterpret the data.
A growing number of fee-based medical sites are setting up personal sites for individual doctors and giving them the option of charging for their e-mail time.