The rise of online healthcare
The internet is an integral part of our everyday lives and almost any nugget of information, no matter how obscure, can be found on the World Wide Web. People ‘surf the net’ for a number of reasons; social networking, to access news or to shop. An emerging market in cyber-space is the world of healthcare, as people are increasingly searching for health information and advice. Within this quest there has been one type of website that has become a must-see for the health conscious; self diagnostic websites.
A recent US study found that 59 percent of all adults in the US search for healthcare advice and information online. The topics searched for can vary from illness and disease, information on a particular hospital or doctor or environmental hazard and food recalls. The results of the study reflect how accessible health information has become by going online and it is incredibly popular amongst the younger generations of society. Eighty-one percent of college graduates look online for health information and the age group which is most active for searching for such web content is the 18-29-year-olds. Meanwhile, 83 percent of people who have a household income of at least US$75,000 dollars are amongst those most likely to self-diagnose online, potentially suggesting that for those leading busy working lives online healthcare is the answer.
Self-diagnosis is not a new idea; people must have always exercised some level of self-diagnosis when buying over-the-counter remedies or medication and these products are sold with the assumption that people know what is making them ill. However, in recent years self-diagnosis has gone to a new level and some would argue it has ‘cut out the middle man’; doctors. There are a whole host of websites that are designed for people to diagnose their illness without visiting a healthcare professional. Established names such as netdoctor.co.uk, yourdiagnosis.com, NHS direct and FamilyDoctor.org are just a few of the many self-diagnostic websites that are out there.
“Health and wellness websites can be a great resource for people who want to learn more about a specific disease or health condition or for tips on staying healthy,” says Susanna Guzman, the director of Online and Custom publishing for the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP). She explains such websites have become increasing popular in recent times, citing FamilyDoctor.org as an example: “FamilyDoctor.org has more than four million unique visitors each month,” Guzman says, adding: “FamilyDoctor’s ‘Search by Symptoms’ tool is one of the most popular categories of content on the site, with more than five million page views each month.”
However, despite self-diagnostic sites being so in demand, as with anything nowadays the information presented may not be what it seems and users need to exercise a sense of caution when it comes to acting on medical and advice. “Users should always verify the source of information,” explains Guzman. “Was the information written by or reviewed by a physician or healthcare professional?” FamilyDoctor is one website that has a stringent process before publishing any new content; everything is authored by a professional clinical or healthcare writer, before being reviewed by a medical editor with a speciality in family medicine. Although exercising caution about listening to certain pieces of advice may sound trivial to some, where health is concerned it can quite literally be a case of life or death.
On that basis, Guzman feels that “health websites and self-diagnostic tools are not meant to replace or substitute an ongoing personal relationship with a physician who knows the patient and their health history.” Many people regard the internet to be the future of everything; shopping, learning, working. While the AAFP supports online interactions between patients and physicians, its guidelines on virtual e-visits state they should only be conducted between patient and doctor who have an already established healthcare relationship.
As the internet is becoming more mobile thanks to the rising popularity of smartphones, self-diagnostic tools have started to take the form of apps and there is no doubt that access to medical advice and information will continue to be revolutionised. Despite whatever innovations or advances may be in store for the world of self-diagnostics, the message remains clear and Guzman concludes by saying virtual access to healthcare services is “not meant to replace professional medical advice from a physician.”