GPs need not be overly worried when their patients look to the internet for information, according to research at the University of York. The study, which was funded by the ESRC, suggests that parents of children with chronic diseases find the internet useful as a source of extra information, but it does not undermine their confidence in health professionals, or their faith in biomedicine.
"Patients don't use the internet in isolation; they add it to routine sources of information such as family, friends, books, magazines and other media," says Dr Sarah Nettleton, who led the research. "Our findings also suggest that people are sensible about what they find online and there is not necessarily a need for an extensive system of kite marks to guarantee the quality of e-health information. Having said this, we also found that people appreciated having websites recommended by health professionals."
The research was based on an analysis of existing health resources available on the internet for childhood eczema, asthma and diabetes, a survey of 358 households with children with one or more of these conditions and follow-up qualitative interviews with 69 parents and 16 children. The families interviewed lived in three areas with very different levels of poverty, health and access to the internet.
The findings reveal an overwhelming sense that people trust health professionals. They also demonstrate that most people are cautious about the potential dangers of health information on the internet, although they are convinced that they can differentiate between valuable information and 'rubbish.' "Our data suggests that patients think only 'other people' may be misled by suspect health information," says Sarah Nettleton.
The research also casts some doubt on current assumptions about the so-called 'digital divide' – the idea that uneven access to the internet could lead to other forms of social inequalities in the information age. The research found many examples of households from poor backgrounds making highly productive use of e-health as well as other examples of richer households who made little or no use of such on-line resources. The results of the survey indicated that nearly 80% of the sample had used the internet, and 61% of households with a child with diabetes had looked the condition up. "Not surprisingly, internet access was greater among the better off," says Sarah Nettleton. "But it is a mistake to assume that such a 'digital divide' directly 'maps' to other forms of social advantage or disadvantage." It is not just a matter of who does and who does not have access to the internet. Just as important nowadays is the manner in which e-health resources are accessed, assessed and acted upon.
Other findings suggest:
E-health adds to both parents' and children's feeling of control in managing their condition;
Most often the consequences of accessing information from the internet for the management of chronic diseases are not dramatic and medical regimens were rarely altered as a result, but people can feel reassured, not least because the information is available if they need it.
Dr Sarah Nettleton, Department of Social Policy and Social Work, University of York, Heslington York YO10 5DD Tel: 01904 321248 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org or Iain Stewart, Lesley Lilley or Becky Gammon at the ESRC on 01793 413032/413119/413122