Doctor Internet

Posted: November 24, 2011 in New Media

What has caught my attention recently is the emergence of the use of the Internet as a tool for medical advice. How many times have you Googled about a specific or general question pertaining to health-related information? How many times have you typed in questions such as, ‘What are the symptoms of a flu?’ or ‘Home remedies for pimples’ I know I have. But what does this mean? Does this mean we can rely and trust the Internet for sound medical advice?

When I came across a report from Statistics Canada which says that diseases are the leading cause of death, it drew my attention to an issue that has probably not been studied enough. In 2008 alone, cancer and heart disease were reported as the leading causes of half of the 238,617 deaths recorded in the country. Cancer accounted for 30% of all deaths in 2008, followed by heart disease (21%) and stroke (6); a total of 57%. Ranked in order, the other seven leading causes of death were chronic lower respiratory diseases, accidents (unintentional injuries), diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, influenza and pneumonia, kidney disease and suicide. This discovery stimulated my interest in health care system in Canada and I decided to read more about it.

Further readings revealed to me that even though the majority of Canadians can afford the quality health care provided in the country, accessibility seems to be an inherent problem. The Health Council of Canada in its November 2010 bulletin posted a survey on how Canadians rate the health care system. In their findings, 65% of Canadians appear to have more difficulty, compared to other countries, in accessing heath care in the evenings, on weekends, and on holidays, without going to the emergency departments.  Of these, 47% say that their condition could have been treated by staff at their usual place of health care had they been available. About one out of every five Canadian (21%) reported waiting a long time (several weeks, sometimes months) to get diagnosis for a medical problem they were concerned about. In some cases specialists could not even be located within vicinities.

What baffles my mind, however, is do people really wait that long in line or travel long miles just to see a physician for diagnosis and subsequent health care? Maybe, maybe not. In this modern day and age of web 2.0 people may be doing better than just waiting to get an appointment with the physician. People may be consulting the Internet for health information among others. The Internet provides the following health related information functions: a) gathering medical news; b) looking for information about medical services; c) searching for information about drugs and medication; d) gathering disease-specific information; e) searching for information about healthy lifestyle; and f) for looking, and participating in discussion groups. If the Internet can provide such useful health aide, then how dependent could Canadians be on it as a supplement to quality health care?

There is no doubt that the advent of the Internet, communication has been revolutionized and human relationships have been broadened, intensified, and challenged. Opportunities now exist for socially shy, isolated, or physically challenged individuals to reach out for connectedness or support: they can use the Web to seek information, companionship, positive or negative means of “acting out”, and increasingly to find advice or professional mental health services such as counselling or psychotherapy. Online mental health practitioners serve also as a bridge to referrals in the face-to-face community. These findings clearly suggest that health information on the Internet can help save our lives.

Yet for all the promise that health information on the Internet offers, there also are perils. There is a lot of bad information floating around-everything from information that is just plain wrong to fraudulent claims by quacks, hucksters, and con artists. What might be the case is that when you are seeking health information on the Internet, you are particularly vulnerable because in many cases you are doing so in response to a medical crisis involving yourself or someone you love.  You may jump on the Internet desperately looking for Information and, most importantly, looking for a cure that will make the medical crisis disappear. Under these circumstances, you may be tempted to suspend your normal good judgement and latch onto anything that promises hope, no matter how ludicrous it may seem.

Obviously, these are the two sides of the coin that are possible when people use the Internet to search for health issues. A point worth noting is, to what extent is health-related information able to reach out to the general public to affect positively or even negatively? How popular is Internet health in Canada? If these questions could be answered with further research, it could suggest better ways in which heath related materials on the Internet can be developed in order to make them easily accessible and comprehensible. That way, E-health will be able to have full impact onto society.

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