Americans are consuming unprecedented amounts of information. Some small fraction of that – what we read, hear and see on TV – relates to health and illness. Today’s sources might include a story on cell phones and cancer, an NPR feature on autism or a commercial in which Sally Fields recommends Boniva, a drug for osteoporosis.

Does knowing more help us lead better, healthier lives?

In Bits, a NY Times blog on business, innovation, technology and society, Nick Bilton recently described our voracious appetite for enlightenment: 34 Gigabytes or, depending on how you count, nearly 12 hours’ worth of data-gleaning per day from diverse channels like television, radio, the Web, text messages and video games.

The Bits piece links to the Global Information Industry Center‘s “How Much Information?” (HMI?) project that issued a December 2009 paper. The research center, based at the University of California in San Diego, dates to 1960, when the Internet was, if anything, theoretical, and the concept of sharing computer-based data a matter of defense.

As best I can tell, the topics of “health” and “cancer” don’t figure prominently in the recent analysis. Maybe we don’t want to know much more on these subjects than we find in our doctors’ offices. But long runs of TV shows like “Marcus Welby, M.D.,” “ER” and “Scrubs” suggest otherwise. Indeed, many tune in regularly for a peek into the medical world, at least when fed in bits and pieces by idealized or heart-throb fictitious physicians with complex, warm and sometimes hot personal lives.

Nearly two-thirds of U.S. adults seek health-related information on the Web, says Susannah Fox of the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. The agency tracks how North Americans use the Internet for medical purposes and published an update, “The Social Life of Health Information” earlier this year.

Dr. Kevin Pho touched on the issue in a December 16 post on KevinMD:

To be sure, doctors and other health professionals don’t get everything right. But anyone can find information on the web, which can be of dubious accuracy.

Knowing what to do with that data can only come with experience and training.

Fox, of the Pew Research Center, commented:

…one of our key findings is that most people use on-line health resources to supplement advice they get from doctors and other health professionals. After 10 years of researching this field, we have no evidence that the internet is replacing traditional sources of medical advice. Yes, many people are gathering and sharing health information online, but they are also discussing it with friends, family, and health professionals.

I was considering the matter last week, it happens, when I received an email from a former patient. He has hemochromatosis, an inherited disposition to iron overload. His body is programmed to take in excessive amounts of iron, which then might deposit in the liver, glands, heart and skin. He offered holiday greetings and mentioned “some amazing videos on hematology and hemochromatosis and genetics” he’d discovered on YouTube.

This is the future of medicine, I realized. A patient accesses public databases, videos and other resources to learn about signs and symptoms of his illness, what foods to eat or best avoid, what medicines and treatments he might need and if his condition is likely to affect others in his family.

Whether physicians want their patients to search the Internet for medical advice is beside the point. We’re there already, whether or not it’s good for us and whether what we find there is true.

The current issue is not about limiting non-professionals’ access to facts or fiction. Rather, it’s about how we might sift through so much material – whether that’s a CNN segment we take in, passively, while running on a treadmill in the gym, or a detailed analysis of a new prostate cancer treatment provided straight from an oncologist – and digest it properly.

Perhaps information is a bit like iron, an essential nutrient that makes us stronger. To benefit from such a surplus, we’ve got to somehow identify, process and absorb what’s useful, what helps and doesn’t hurt.

Patients using internet health information without physician guidance

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