A new study conducted by researchers at University of California, Davis, reveals that the patients' habit of checking online about their illnesses should not be viewed as lack of trust in their doctors but they do it in order to be better informed and play an active role in their care.
The study surveyed more than 500 people who were members of online support groups and had scheduled appointments with a physician.
"We found that mistrust was not a significant predictor of people going online for health information prior to their visit," said Xinyi Hu, who co-authored the study as part of her master's thesis in communication.
"This was somewhat surprising and suggests that doctors need not be defensive when their patients come to their appointments armed with information taken from the Internet," Hu added.
With faculty co-authors at UC Davis and the University of Southern California, Hu examined how the study subjects made use of support groups, other Internet resources, and offline sources of information, including traditional media and social relations, before their medical appointments.
The study found no evidence that the users of online health information had less trust in their doctors than patients who did not seek information through the Internet.
"The Internet has become a mainstream source of information about health and other issues. Many people go online to get information when they anticipate a challenge in their life. It makes sense that they would do the same when dealing with a health issue," Hu noted.
Although physician mistrust did not predict reliance on the Internet prior to patients' medical visits, several other factors did. For example, people were more likely to seek information online when their health situation was distressful or when they felt they had some level of personal control over their illness. Online information-seeking was also higher among patients who believed that their medical condition was likely to persist.
The study also found that Internet health information did not replace more traditional sources of information. Instead, patients used the Internet to supplement offline sources, such as friends, health news reports and reference books.
"As a practicing physician, these results provide some degree of reassurance," said co-author Richard L. Kravitz, a UC Davis Health System professor of internal medicine and study co-author.
"The results mean that patients are not turning to the Internet out of mistrust; more likely, Internet users are curious information seekers who are just trying to learn as much as they can before their visit," he added.
The study was published earlier this year in the Journal of Health Communication.