Information travels faster now than ever before. Even large distances don’t impede the ability to share information and collaborate with others. After all, the Internet started out of a desire to have a plan in place for U.S. government information sharing in the event that telephone lines were compromised. Data sharing between government agencies and scientists has now evolved into the Internet being used by approximately 39 percent of the world’s population. Suffice it to say, people are finding the information they want, faster.
Pew Research Center reported in September 2012 that 72 percent of Internet users say they looked online for health information within the past year. The increased availability and use of smartphones and tablet computers has only increased the number of individuals with extensive amounts of health information at their fingertips. Although some may say that is good, there are also repercussions.
One of those repercussions is that health care consumers find contradictory information across various health agencies. A second is that patients are coming to appointments self-diagnosed or having researched topics so extensively that they may question the expertise of the professional.
Guidelines for mammograms are one such screening on which health care agencies disagree. The Mayo Clinic and the American Cancer Society recommend that women begin getting mammograms at age 40 and repeat annually, while the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force suggests starting screening at age 50 with repeat exams no more than two years apart.There are also discrepancies regarding prostate-specific antigen (PSA) screening recommendations. In May 2013, the American Urological Association (AUA) released guidelines for male patients older than the age of 40. The AUA does not advise the test for patients younger than the age of 40 or for patients between 40 and 55 with an average risk. Individual physicians may make recommendations based on patient need. For example, a radiation oncologist I once worked with believed the PSA could serve to provide an individualized PSA value trend over time versus just a “one-shot” test compared against an industry “normal” value range.
Who’s the Expert?
Not so long ago, a visit to a medical office meant trusting the opinion of the practitioner you saw. You couldn’t use the Internet to Google your doctor’s recommendation and call it into question; you accepted the recommendations of the provider. If health care policies changed between appointments, you would be made aware of them at the next visit, but it was probably unlikely that as a patient you would have this information before the doctor. With the speed of the Internet, the public can see changes as they happen, just as easily, or easier, than the medical professionals. For example, guidelines related to car seat safety for infants and children are often changing. Even for a mother with many children, guidelines may change from the first child to the last. The American Academy of Pediatrics made updates to car seat guidelines in 2002 and again in 2011.
While we can’t control what information is being disseminated to the public by various agencies, we can take every opportunity to educate consumers on how to distinguish reputable information from truly misleading and incorrect information.