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Survey Finds Internet Health Information Rates Higher than Real MDs

by Peter Barry Chowka

A recent conference on the Internet and health in Washington D.C. was the setting not only for HHS's (the US government's Department of Health and Human Services) re-launch of its health website but of

its warning to Internet users to beware of the health information that is available on the World Wide Web.

The real news at the conference, however, was the presentation of a remarkable independent survey which found that members of online health information and support groups for medical conditions rated their cyber communities as helping them more than either specialist or primary care physicians in nine of twelve important aspects of health care.

HHS and the Annenberg School and Public Policy Center sponsored The Fourth Annual Partnerships for Networked Consumer Health Information Conference in late April. The conference focused on how the fast-growing online environment is changing health care in the U.S. for both consumers and providers.

Expressing its official concern about the explosion of Web-based health resources, the HHS said in a statement, "Unfortunately there is no 'Michelin Guide' to the health information superhighway." HHS recommended that Internet users inquire of health sites: "Who is the sponsor? Do they have a bias? Are they trying to sell something?' Where does the content itself come from? Who is the authority behind it?''

The important new news generated at the conference involved a March 1998 survey by Tom Ferguson, MD, and William Kelly. Ferguson and Kelly surveyed a sample of the 80,000 people and patients who are members of Sapient Health Network in Oregon [SHN] cost free online health communities.

The results were that the Internet users rated the information and support they accessed online as superior to the help they received from MDs, both primary care and specialist, in nine of twelve areas of health care. Specialist physicians received the highest rating in only two of the twelve aspects and primary care MDs received no top ratings.

"These [survey] results indicate that health information consumers can and do use the Internet to learn more about their conditions, share valuable information with other patients, and provide one another

with emotional support," said study co-author Kelly. The complete report on the survey will be published in the September 1998 issue of The Ferguson Report: The Newsletter of Consumer Health Informatics and Online Health. Copies of the report can be obtained from Ferguson.

For more information,

HHS's healthfinder

healthfinder[tm] Smart Choices: Evaluating Online Health Information

Working Draft White Paper: Criteria for Assessing the Quality of Health Information on the Internet 14 October 1997

Doc Tom's [Ferguson] Home Page


A Guided Tour of Self-Help Cyberspace by Tom Ferguson, MD -- transcript of presentation at Partnerships '96 conference