Knight Ridder/Tribune- May 23, 2001
May 22--Recently, Dr. Peter Roloff received a call from the mother of one of his patients. Her 15-month-old daughter was experiencing certain symptoms, so she plugged them into an Internet health site and found some possible causes.
Roloff commended the mother on her initiative and set up a visit to his office at Affinity Medical Group's Neenah Clinic to walk through her findings.
Health information ranks as one of the most researched subjects on the Internet with 100 million adults consulting the Web last year, according to a recent report by Harris Interactive.
Harris calls people that look to the Net for information "cyberchondriacs," but most health practitioners find that label unfair.
"I actually encourage people to use the information available on the Web," said Roloff, a pediatrician, who added that staying informed serves as a proactive step in disease prevention.
However, it's not the amount of time spent on the Web that's causing problems -- it's where patients spend that time, researchers suggest.
More than half those people searching the Web start at search engines or portals and simply type in "health," Harris reported. This can get consumers to sites listed simply because the Web master paid big bucks to get it in the top 10 hits.
Dr. John Barkmeier, a family physician and medical director of information technology for ThedaCare, instructs patients to consult their doctors about their Internet findings.
"There's all kinds of information out there," Barkmeier said. "You may not looking at all the facts."
Roloff believes part of the reason doctors spend so much time in school is to learn how to interpret what's out there and explain the options to patients.
For example, various publications and organizations publish new studies and treatment possibilities each day. But dozens of factors -- Who sponsored the study? How many people participated in the test? Where did they come from? etc. -- can skew the results, Roloff said.
"Immunization is the biggest realm for this (confusion)," he said. "There's a lot of anti-immunization info out there."
Taking advice from anonymous netizens in chatrooms and on message boards also proves risky, Barkmeier said. However, Roloff does suggest some patients and their loved ones join online groups for support and the latest information on rare or genetic diseases such as muscular dystrophy or multiple sclerosis.
Roloff receives seven or more medical journals a month, but finds it hard to keep up with all of it. "For a physician to say we're on top of everything going on, that's just not the truth," he said.
Often a Web-based support network, sometimes facilitated by experts on the diseases, can help an individual, he said. Then the patient can forward his or her findings to the doctor for feedback.
In a few cases, the wealth of online data creates some problems for health practitioners.
Barkmeier recalls a few instances when patients looked up a drug he prescribed. They saw all the possible side effects and stopped taking the medicine, he said.
"When a drug company puts a drug on the market, they have to list every possible complication -- even if it only happened once out of 5 million cases," Roloff said.
A doctor takes into account each individual patient's medical history, allergies and existing conditions before prescribing and within a few minutes "that can all be undone," Barkmeier said.
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(c) 2001, The Post-Crescent, Appleton, Wis. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.