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Child Psychiatrist /Adult Psychiatrist

The Informed Patient: Does It Help or Hurt Their Care?

Updated: Sep 14, 2023

A woman using a laptop in bed with a dog.

Although research has demonstrated that physicians continue to be the most respected source of medical information for patients, they also frequently search the internet for information prior to an office visit.1 Ease of access to medical information websites and the significant growth in the amount of health information available means that patients can find information in a matter of seconds. However, not all of the information provided by medical information websites is reliable, which has the potential to significantly affect both patient care and public health.

How Do Patients Seek Health Information?

Once, physicians were the primary gatekeepers of reliable health information. Over time, this role has evolved to include such media as print, television, and radio, and now, the internet. Today, patients can access health information in a number of ways, including:

  • Health care professionals (physicians, nurses, pharmacists, and other health care professionals)

  • Friends and family

  • Social media (eg, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and TikTok)

  • Medical information websites (WebMD, Mayo Clinic, and Cleveland Clinic, among others)

  • Health apps, including various fitness, nutrition, or mental health apps

  • Television and radio

As access to the internet has become more widespread over the past 20 years, researchers have documented the shift in patient health information-seeking behavior to include more online sources.2 More than two-thirds of people who use the internet use it to search for health information. Most of these users search using a general search engine, such as Google or Bing, instead of starting their search on a dedicated medical information website.3 Social media serves as a source of health information shared by not only friends and family, but also the pharmaceutical industry and news media, among others. In research conducted recently, social media was determined to be one of the top 10 ways online health information is spread.

Why Do Patients Visit Medical Information Websites?

Although searching for health information on the internet has been increasing over the past 20 years, the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to significant growth in this behavior. Without easy access to in-person medical advice, people turned to the internet for health information.

A study conducted by researchers in Italy revealed that during the COVID-19 pandemic, the internet — not physicians — was the main source of health-related information. Additionally, one-third of people were found to have increased their health information-seeking behaviors during this time. Other factors that could contribute to this phenomenon include long wait times for in-person medical visits and the high cost of health care.


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