Web knowledge empowers patients, researcher says

The Internet is having a profound effect on physician-patient relationships by giving patients greater control of their own health care decisions, says a University of Toronto researcher.

"An estimated 70 million people in the U.S. and millions in Canada have used the Internet to obtain health-related information," says Dr. Gunther Eysenbach, a professor in health policy, management and evaluation at U of T and a senior scientist in the Centre for Global eHealth Innovation at the University Health Network. "The traditional system where the physician knows everything and the patient knows very little is not the system of the future." Eysenbach and co-authors James Anderson and Michelle Rainey from Purdue University report their findings in a paper entitled The Impact of CyberHealthcare on the Physician-Patient Relationship, published in the February issue of the Journal of Medical Systems.

Physicians have mixed feelings about the use of the Internet for patient education, says Eysenbach. Some say that patients may take up doctors' valuable time by asking questions not applicable to their case or by making unreasonable demands. Others may feel their authority is threatened by the information patients bring or that gaps may be revealed in their own knowledge about new research results.

Eysenbach calls such arguments short-sighted. While some patients may take more time with unnecessary questions, others who are better informed may actually save time because they arrive with background information and appropriate questions. As well, patients who keep up to date on information from the Internet can function as a catalyst for bringing the latest research information into practice.

With the proliferation of health information on the Web, however, the challenge is educating patients to help them differentiate unbiased data from commercially tainted or otherwise flawed information.


Contact: Janet Wong
University of Toronto

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