Too much Internet information cannot replace a doctor's visit

June 1, 2011

In medicine, as in many other fields, we quickly retrieve information from electronic sources when we need it, but we also are sent information that is "pushed out" by journal publishers, medical organizations, newspapers, and advertisers.

Each day I receive an email from a source that summarizes recent studies and articles about pediatric health issues.

If you took seriously all the health interventions suggested in the summaries I received just today, you would think you should supplement the diets of pregnant women with vitamin D to prevent RSV bronchiolitis; you would expect breast feeding to prevent behavior problems in children; you would avoid conceiving a child during the winter because winter conception may be associated with autism; and you might prohibit your children from participating in high-intensity sports for fear of precipitating gastrointestinal complaints.

It's difficult to remember how quickly access to information has increased. One example: just 13 years ago, Google didn't exist (the founders filed for incorporation in California in September 1998).

In medicine, as in many other fields, we quickly retrieve information from electronic sources when we need it, but we also are sent information that is "pushed out" by journal publishers, medical organizations, newspapers, and advertisers. (You may be reading this on your computer, having received a notice that the digital edition of this month's Contemporary Pediatrics was available.)

Medical providers are well aware that our patients and parents also are searching for and receiving large amounts of information from a variety of sources. In many cases those sources provide accurate, informative, and helpful information. For families with children who have acute or chronic medical conditions, the Internet may provide resources that enhance their understanding of the diagnosis and management, and it may connect families to support and advocacy groups. Because of the Internet, the public's access to current information is virtually unlimited. As soon as anyone publishes an article, a research study, or an editorial about a health issue, it's on the Web.

But all that information can be confusing, misleading, and wrong. Even summaries of well-conducted research studies, published nearly every day in newspapers and discussed in television news broadcasts, may convince members of the public of the effectiveness of a medication, the risks of a particular food or activity, or the benefits of a screening method. Remember the public interest in total body CT scans available in the shopping malls?

I'm not sure that, as pediatricians, we can do much about the availability of all this information. We may just have to hope that our patients' parents will begin to understand that much of what comes to them via the Internet must be confirmed, validated, denied, refuted, or just plain ignored. Hopefully, when it comes to issues involving their children's health, they will ask questions, and one of the people they consult will be their pediatrician.