The Internet has transformed every aspect of health care. Online communities provide new forms of support for people with a thousand different medical conditions. Email has streamlined communication between stakeholders in the system. Electronic medical records and social networking sites hold a wealth of data that can be leveraged to study the effects of various treatments.
The most significant advance by far though, has been the ease with which people can access information about their health. As many as 74% of all people search for information about their symptoms and treatments online. Many of these information-empowered people now see physicians as guides to and interpreters of this information, a far cry from the era in which passive patients simply recounted their symptoms and relied on paternalistic physicians to act in their best interests.
There are problems with the new paradigm, just as there were with the one it replaced. In particular, online health information can be incomplete, biased, lacking for proper context or flat-out inaccurate…and not everyone can sort through these deficiencies in a way that assures they are properly informed.
A recent study by Alexander van Deursen and Jan van Dijk of the University of Twente has quantified these problems. The scientists used performance tests to assess health-related Internet search and other online skills in a representative sample of the people in the Netherlands.
Their tests focused on four types of skills:
Operational-These included basic internet skills like opening a health website, saving a PDF file and adding a website to a list of “favorites.”
Formal-These included navigating health-related menus and websites, and surfing a list of websites.
Finding Information-These included accessing specific information regarding medical conditions and answering specific questions like whether it is appropriate to begin a treatment after being infected with a particular germ.
Strategic-These included extracting information from different sources and making decisions based on the information. For example, “find out whether it is wise to give a 3-year-old boy Vitamin A and D.” (more…)