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Caution needed when surfing for care information

With the proliferation of the World Wide Web, consumers have access to more information than ever before. In the healthcare field, that can be good or it can be harmful.

Healthcare providers acknowledge that patients are using the Internet to become more informed, taking an active role in their healthcare, but they urge them to proceed with caution.

“There has been an explosion of the Internet and that has brought a monumental amount of information,” says Dr. Richard Conn of Hattiesburg. “Some of it is productive and a lot is spam. In general it is helpful to patients and physicians. Patients can preview information and then be referred to it after their physician visit to learn more about their illness.”

One of the biggest problems?

Conn, a partner of Southern Bone and Joint Clinic and an orthopedic surgeon at Wesley Medical Center, often refers patients to the Internet after they see him. The biggest problem, however, is self diagnosing.

“People come up with some interesting solutions that may not apply to their situations,” he said. “They come to me wanting certain hip and knee surgeries that are not right for them. The Internet can be counter productive and I have to take the time to explain why they don’t need what they read there.”

Beware the different medicines and herbs that are promoted on the Internet. “Unfortunately, a lot of it is not regulated by the Federal Drug Administration,” he cautions, “and these alternative medications can cause harm.”

That can be especially problematic when patients order and take medications from the Internet and fail to tell their physicians. Some alternative medications can cause bleeding and have adverse interactions with prescription drugs.

Dr. Joseph Hull, who’s in family practice at Primary Care Medical Center in Gulfport, agrees that vigilance must be used. “There are a lot of herbal remedies and supplements that are advertised and sold over the Internet that probably aren’t in the best interest of patients,” he said. “People need to be careful about were they are finding information and what they are buying over the Internet.”

He says healthcare information obtained from the Internet can be a double-edged sword, depending on the web site. Because anyone can put information out there, patients researching healthcare issues on the Web should be sure they are looking at reputable sites that are affiliated with the American Medical Association, hospitals or major universities.

Education or bad advice?

Hull, who’s affiliated with Garden Park Hospital in Gulfport, said some of his patients do bring him information they’ve found on the Internet. “In some cases, patients are more educated, but I worry about them following the advice of bad information they might stumble upon,” he said.

Conn says the Internet can be used in a productive way, but personal physicians need to be involved. “If a patient has a need to learn and search out information, they should take that advice to their physician,” he said. “We can go over it with them and help them sort through it.”

He adds that the Internet is here and won’t be shut down; necessitating patients and physicians to work together to separate the helpful information from the harmful.

Dr. Richard de Shazo sees adult and pediatric patients in his allergy and rheumatology practice in Jackson. In treating these chronic diseases, he sees a lot of patients interested in the latest information via the Internet. He is also chairman of the department of medicine at University of Mississippi Medical Center where he’s a professor of medicine and pediatrics.

Additionally, this busy professional hosts the Southern Remedy program on Mississippi Public Radio. The program airs all over the state, twice a week, and listeners can call in to ask questions.

“From all these venues I know that large numbers of people are using the Internet. Some of the sites are terrible and some are very good,” he said. “Most of the good sites are hooked up with professional organizations such as the American Cancer Society, academic institutions like the Mayo Clinic or the federal government.”

Consumers can usually get useful information by using those sites with reputable organizations, de Shazo advises. He feels strongly about these sites and lists them on the radio program’s Web site. Go to mpbonline.org and click on Southern Remedy for this list.

“The sites we recommend are screened on a weekly basis,” he added. “Most of the bogus information folks get are from those sites selling something. I recommend not going to those sites. These sites are selling vitamins and other medications that are not demonstrated to be useful.”

This physician says he’s had patients stop their prescribed medications for serious conditions and really get sick from taking medications ordered online. That’s particularly true with lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, two illnesses he treats.

Other suggestions from Dr. de Shazo include bringing Internet material to your physician and asking pharmacists for help. Most importantly, send the information to your doctor several days before your office visit.

“Your doctor will help pick out the useful stuff if you send it ahead but might not have time during your visit,” he said. “Pharmacists are a very good and competent resource to help with Internet information. We have wonderful pharmacists in Mississippi.”

Dr. de Shazo says we all want a magic cure — quick and cheap — for what ails us. The plethora of information now at our fingertips spurs that quest. “That’s just who we are,” he said. “We’ve made a lot of progress in medical cures but some things still have to be mediated over time.”

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

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