– Pharmacists warn of dangers of using internet for health advice

As the recession rumbles on Irish consumers are turning to the internet to self diagnose and seek advice on health conditions. A nationwide survey of 1,000 adults carried out by Quinn Healthcare revealed “almost half of Irish people (46%) find that the cost of attending their GP encourages them to consult the Internet for medical diagnosis“.

The National Consumer Agency puts the average cost per GP visit at an average of €51…prohibitive for the 60% of women and 50% of men under 44 who are turning to “Dr Google” for information on health issues.

Other stats from the survey include:

– 45% would use a phone service or web chat if GPs offered this service, with Dublin respondents being most positive on these methods of consultation (52%)

– On average 35% of the population believe the Internet is a trustworthy source of medical information, with young men being the biggest believers (48%)

– 53% of females aged between 35-44 use the Internet for a second opinion and as a tool to challenge GP diagnosis

– More than 55% of younger males, and also 54% of women aged between 35-44 would consult the Internet rather than their GP if suffering from an embarrassing medical problem

The Irish Pharmacy Union (IPU) posted a statement in response to this research, saying: “We are concerned at the growing trend for people using the internet to self diagnose. The information online may not always be correct and your symptoms could worsen if you are not properly diagnosed. We encourage people to drop in and ask their pharmacist first for advice.

The IPU ‘Ask your Pharmacist First’ campaign has been running for some months now with a series of radio adverts and the launch of their website ‘watercooleradvice.ie‘. On the interactive site you can type in any health topic and the three ‘watercooler experts’ will give you their advice. The idea being to underscore that “On the internet, everyone’s an “expert” and you should ask a qualified healthcare professional (such as your pharmacist) for advice.

IPU watercooleradvice site to educate consumers on the danger of seeking advice online

The most interesting stat that jumps out of this research for me is the fact that women are using the internet as a virtual ‘second opinion’, gathering information to challenge their GP’s initial diagnosis. This trend suggests training healthcare professionals in communications techniques to allow them to effectively manage the expectations of ‘e-patients’ armed with print outs from the internet will become a vital element of their professional development.

I doubt that anything will dissuade consumers from seeking information online…convenience, curiosity and cost savings will mean that the numbers of people visiting “Dr Google” is only going to increase. The focus of those operating in the healthcare sector, (the Department of Health, healthcare professionals, advocacy groups and pharmaceutical companies), should be on ensuring that accurate and engaging health education content is available for all conditions and that this is readily accessible online.

The e-patient is not going away and so healthcare must adapt to provide e-treatment.