H1N1 tests Internet as health resource

By Molly Merrill
02:24 PM
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Research has shown that concerns about the quality and quantity of health information on the Internet are common among physicians and patients, and as the Internet plays more of a role in disseminating health information – especially in cases like the H1NI virus – experts say this information should be closely examined for accuracy.

According to the Pew Internet Project survey 78 percent of home broadband users look online for health information and they are twice as likely as home dial-up users to do health research on a typical day.
“A huge issue is the growing disconnect between what people do online and what they talk about with their doctors,” says Lisa Neal Gualtieri, adjunct clinical professor in the Health Communication Program at Tufts University School of Medicine. Gualtieri has written an article called “The Doctor as the Second Opinion and the Internet as the First.”

“Doctors are the best people to be informing patients of what are reliable sites to be using and what to do with information they find,” says Gualtieri. She suggests that medical professionals can alleviate this disconnect by taking the lead in establishing guidelines for systematically talking to patients about and guiding their Internet research.

In May, as the H1N1 virus entered the United States, the Internet, and social networking sites in particular, played a large role in disseminating health information to the public.

“Technology has played a critical role in how the events have unfolded – and continue to unfold – with the swine flu cases,” said Mark Bard, president of Manhattan Research, a healthcare market research firm in New York.
 “Information is power when trying to contain something like swine flu,” he said.

Evgeny Morozov, a board member and fellow at the Open Society Institute in New York, a private operating and grant-making foundation, was at first skeptical of the government and its agencies’ use of social media space.
“The Twitter account of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was posting updates once in a few hours – and that was probably the only really trustworthy source people could turn to online,” he said.

He said these updates actually got much more professional and proactive as events began to unfold. “I’ve been quite impressed with how fast they have adapted (including many interesting initiatives beyond Twitter – Facebook groups, widgets updated in real time, Flickr images, etc.,” he said.

The CDC Web site is well branded and is clearly marked with the most recent updates, agrees Gualtieri.

However, she says it is “quite busy with sidebars and lots of related information. The most important information for most healthcare consumers is in a box near the bottom, ‘What You Can Do to Stay Healthy’ and what is likely to be prevalent on most people’s minds (such as signs and symptoms) doesn’t appear at all, she notes.

“Due to poor health literacy skills and the fears that have been played upon by the media frenzy, Web sites should provide very specific information that addresses the concerns uppermost on a healthcare consumer’s mind and it should take minimal scrolling and clicks to find it,” says Gualtieri.