Of all digital media, the Internet has probably made the most significant impact on shaping a consumer revolution in health-care communication. It is creating communities of consumers linked by a common goal--empowerment through access to health, medical, and pharmaceutical information anytime, anywhere. It is also shaping a new electronic intimacy between those who communicate online personal information about their disease and their audiences.
But before medical providers can take full advantage of the digital medium, certain obstacles must be overcome, such as disparities in the availability of Internet access and variations in the level of computer sophistication among users. Even the speed of the Internet connection (DSL vs. dial-up) can affect how well consumers can access valuable health-care information online. In the future, those accessibility issues may pose more than an inconvenience to people suffering from illnesses; they may pose a health risk. Fast delivery of information can be crucial to the consumer who has just received a diagnosis of a disease.
The Online Medical School
The wealth of information available online is changing the patient-doctor dynamic for good, and mostly for the better. Information formerly accessible to a privileged few (doctors, medical and pharmaceutical researchers, etc.) is now available free to consumers worldwide. This includes access to prestigious online journals such as The New England Journal of Medicine.
The Aetna InteliHealth Web site provides free consumer newsletters with excerpts from a number of the Harvard Medical School consumer publications. The latter are available in hard copy for a fee. Harvard also provides a free consumer health newsletter. Merck & Co. Inc. provides free consumer versions of the Merck Manuals, which have information in both English and Spanish on a wide range of diseases and their treatments. The Merck Manuals were previously available only in hard copy for a fee.
The medical jargon present in many professional journal articles and clinical trial reports might make it somewhat difficult for many consumers, even educated ones, to understand a good portion of the studies cited. However, most journals provide abstracts that are written in concise and largely nontechnical language. These give a fairly good overview of the results of the study. The National Library of Medicine (which falls under the auspices of the National Institutes of Health) provides a glossary of medical terms on its consumer Web site. In addition, the new International Federation of Pharmaceutical and Manufacturers Association (IFPMA) Web site contains a glossary of terms that frequently occur in reports on clinical trials. Consumers who desire an interpretation of the findings of a study appearing in a professional journal can always print it and show it to their doctor for help.
Some Web sites are bringing doctors and patients together in new and exciting ways. One 56-year-old woman whose symptoms were undiagnosed for a decade contacted a specialist whose name appeared in an online medical journal article. This specialist ultimately diagnosed her illness and started her on the road to better health, she told a Pew survey. According to the UCLA Digital Futures Report, more than half of users who have accessed health or medical information within a recent 12-month period reported that the information they found online led them to contact a health-care professional.
The IFPMA's recently launched portal links available online information about clinical trials worldwide. The NIH also provides information on clinical trials conducted by the Institutes, as well as those sponsored by other federal agencies, pharmaceutical companies, and universities, on its clinical trials Web site and on Medline Plus. These resources allow doctors and patients to carry out searches for information on particular trials quickly and easily. …