Poll shows growing number of U.S. 'cyberchondriacs'

More people get health info online first, then confer with doctors

With easy online access to up-to-date medical information and reference materials, more adults in the U.S. are using the Internet to find out about their health, then talking to their personal doctors about what they find.

In fact, according to a new telephone poll by Harris Interactive, about 160 million of the 225 million adults in the U.S. have looked online for information about their health, up 37 percent since 2005.

Two years ago, 117 million adults used the Web to access health information. Last year, that number had risen to 136 million adults. In fact, the latest figures show that the number of U.S. adults searching the Web for health information has more than tripled from 54 million in 1998, when the first Harris poll on the topic was conducted.

These "cyberchondriacs," as they are called by Harris Interactive, are people who typically use Internet sites to learn about physical conditions and symptoms, then go to their family doctors armed with information about possible treatments, said Regina Corso, director of the Harris Poll. "We don't mean anything negative" by the term cyberchondriacs, Corso said.

"We do think it's a positive" that people are using the Web to learn more about their own health care, she said. "They're not second-guessing their doctors, but they're using a tool that wasn't available a few years ago. They can get more information and a second opinion. They can go back to their doctor and say, 'This is what I found. What do you think?'"

The Harris poll, which surveyed 1,010 U.S. adults by telephone between July 10 and 17, also found that on average, cyberchondriacs search the Internet about 5.7 times a month to get health information. And 88 percent of cyberchondriacs they were successful in finding the health information they wanted.

About 58 percent of those surveyed discussed the health information they gathered online with their doctors at least once in the last year, according to Harris Interactive. And 55 percent said they searched for health information based on discussions with their doctors. That figure is up 10 percent from last year.

Dr. Rick Kellerman, president of the Leawood, Kan.-based American Academy of Family Physicians, said the upside of the trend is that people are more involved in their own health care because of online resources. "But the downside is you have to be careful of the Web sites you go to," he said. "Because if you go to just any Web site ... sometimes you really don't know about the information you are getting."

Patients who search online for information, then talk about those findings with their doctors, provide a benefit to both parties, Kellerman said. "It may even mean that the need for that personal physician is even more important today than in the past. The problem is there's so much information overload and you need someone to help figure out what applies to you.

"It can complicate the office visit when people come in with reams of information," he said. "But that's why it's good to do this with a family physician whom you have a long relationship with to [figure] out what's applicable."

In the past, doctors sometimes educated patients by photocopying pages from medical texts and sending that information home with them, Kellerman said. But that information was often old or difficult to understand, leaving the patients with little real help understanding their condition.

Several medical Web sites are good places to start for reliable and topical information, he said. They include:

* FamilyDoctor.org -- the site of Kellerman's group, the American Academy of Family Physicians, is easily accessible and well organized.

* Revolution.com -- a site begun by AOL founder Steve Case.

* WebMD.com -- a site that is already well known, very detailed and considered reliable.

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Todd R. Weiss

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