Health choices

There are thousands of Web sites and millions of Web pages about healthcare and medicine on the Internet.

An obvious question: At what point does the quantity of something affect the quality of something?

Sue Blevins, president of the Institute for Health Freedom in Washington, D.C., says what's interesting to see is how the presence of and access to so much information is beginning to alter individuals' approaches to their own healthcare.

One of the cultural changes brought about by the Internet is that it turns people into researchers. Anyone can look up almost anything. People just think to "go ask" on the Internet, she says. "This spills over into making more-informed healthcare choices for themselves and their family."

Combine this with the fact that anybody and everybody's Web site "can be on my monitor," and you have a powerful force for empowerment when patients confront a medical profession that historically has been short on giving out details in terms lay folks understand.

For most people, the Web operates as a one-page reality. Discussions about complex subjects are routinely boiled down to a single page. Patients are likely to carry this over into expecting intelligible answers to their questions of healthcare professionals, Ms. Blevins says. The down side to this is that fraudulent Web sites can create the aura of legitimacy more easily on the Net.

Knowing the description of a symptom or a disease is not a diagnosis. But the expectation by millions of Internet users that a problem should be clearly explained is a major cultural shift.

Next week: sharing medical records on the Internet.

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