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Why the Internet can empower patients and aid in the spread of misinformation

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The widespread use and popularity of the internet means that health information is available 24/7 from a wide array of sites, but it has also lead to the spreading of false health information on a large scale.

Dr. Nilay Kumar is a clinical assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. Today on "Take Care," he shares why the accessibility of health information can help encourage people to make positive health choices, and also lead to a lot of misinformation.

Before the internet, people got their health information from their primary care physician or by way of healthcare campaigns that were run by larger organizations, Kumar said, but that all changed with the arrival and growth of the internet.

“A lot of the patients are now finding all of their information on the internet,” Kumar said.

He estimated that approximately 80 percent of Americans look for health information online, which he said raises concerns about the kind of healthcare information they are receiving.

“The democratization of information that has happened with the internet has a huge potential to empower patients in regard to their chronic illnesses, in regards to preventative care,” Kumar said. “One of the biggest challenges, though, is that misinformation has spread rapidly with the advent of the internet.”

An area of concern, he said, is that self-diagnoses are rarely accurate, and even accurate measurements of health conditions like blood pressure can produce skewed results if done without a physician.

“It’s quite easy to come up with erroneous diagnoses based on the information that you find on the internet,” Kumar said. “It’s always a good idea to make sure that you double-check with your primary care provider and make sure that some of the concerns you have are actually legitimate concerns.”

Often, patients will come to their doctors with their own suggested diagnosis and treatment, and videos with alternative treatments get shared via social media a lot more than those with accurate information. Because of this, he said, it is hard for an ordinary person to tell the difference between accurate and inaccurate health information, especially with the spread of false information.

“There has to be a balance between people being able to express their views versus those who are engaging in conspiracy theories and spreading sensational claims about cures of chronic diseases that may not be validated,” Kumar said.

Kumar said that the accessibility of health information is only going to increase, which is not necessarily all bad; that information can help encourage patients to take proactive measures against chronic illnesses.

“The information asymmetry that used to exist between healthcare providers and patients is going to continue to decrease,” Kumar said. “For the most part, that is a really good thing because that helps patients get empowered with respect to chronic disease conditions. And that helps patients take ownership of their own disease processes.”

Even as that good is being achieved, fighting misinformation is going to become more difficult, but Kumar said regulations the government may put in place in the coming years could help patients to discern fact from fiction.

“The information age has brought about positive changes, but with the proliferation of smartphone and internet-based technologies, we definitely are going to come against more challenges with respect to the spread of misinformation,” Kumar said.