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Dr. Net

Around 3/4 of the U.S. go online at least occasionally, an amount that by some accounts is up 80% since 2000. It should be no surprise then that a segment of these folks are using the Internet as a resource to troubleshoot their health problems. And like the number of those who use the Internet for entertainment, information or communication, the number of e-patients is steadily increasing.

E-patients are people who are turning to the World Wide Web to research their health problems, decide what treatments to pursue, and to find support and information from others with the same illnesses. Of the 1 in 5 American adults who say that a disability, handicap, or chronic disease keeps them from participating fully in work, school, housework, or other activities, only half go online – compared to the 3/4 of those who are healthy that use the Internet. Partially this is due to the fact that the chronically ill have a larger proportion of people over 50 and thus not as familiar with computers and the Web.

But perhaps the young and healthy have something to learn from how older and sicker Americans use the Internet. One report found:

  • 75% of e-patients with chronic conditions say the information they found in their last search affected a decision about how to treat an illness or condition.
  • 69% of e-patients with chronic conditions say the information led them to ask a doctor new questions or to get a second opinion from another doctor.
  • 57% of e-patients with chronic conditions say the information changed the way they cope with a chronic condition or manage pain.

Though people claim that not enough Americans take enough responsibility for their own health, not everyone is pleased with this growing trend. While some doctors may feel threatened by patients questioning their medical decisions, other doctors are just concerned their patients don’t know how to assess or use the information they’re finding online.

Websites that help users take specific health-promoting actions – like quitting smoking or losing weight – may appear uncontroversial. But readers should always be aware of who is sponsoring the site and check with their doctor before ingesting any new products or dramatically altering their eating or exercise habits.

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