Women seeking answers online

AFTER a long day at work, you gently massage the back of your neck and discover a lump you've never noticed before.

Do you: make an appointment with the doctor immediately, dial 13HEALTH or hop in front of your computer and search for a quick internet diagnosis?

If you are a woman, chances are you will seek an internet opinion before consulting your local GP.

Queensland University of Technology (QUT) research has shown more and more women are going online with their health queries.

And Faculty of Health lecturer Dr Julie-Anne Carroll has called for a greater focus on ensuring “plenty of reliable advice from health professionals is available in cyberspace”.

Dr Carroll said studies showed almost 80% of women used the internet to answer their health questions and to seek support.

“Most women go online when they are looking for information about a health issue, but are still discerning about what information they receive,” she said.

“Our study and others have found that women are selecting and comparing sources, testing evidence and then taking information to family and friends, as well as to their doctors.

“In the old days, you might go to your doctor and get one opinion or one set of advice and that was it. Now, women are looking at different options when it comes to making health decisions.

“While the internet does not appear to be replacing visits to the GP, it is certainly acting as a first pit-stop for basic information and also as a form of social networking and support for ongoing conditions and diseases.

“For this reason, it is important that women have reliable and unbiased sources of information to choose from, and appropriate online support mechanisms to turn to.”

But Sunshine Coast GP Dr Wayne Herdy said “diagnosis by anything except a health professional is risky business”.

“A little knowledge can be dangerous,” he said.

“Some internet sites are excellent and highly reliable and doctors use them. Some are appalling bad and inaccurate and you need a considerable amount of knowledge to tell them apart.”

Dr Carroll suggested health professionals should be trained in web writing so they could offer reliable information to women.

Her study asked 40 women studying health at university about their own experiences seeking health information and asked why they went online to seek support and information.

“What we found was women wanted to learn about health on their own terms and also that they may have felt embarrassed about their health issue. The anonymity of asking for information online is appealing to those who do feel embarrassed,” she said.

“Online communities can be very helpful, and we need to embrace this trend instead of discouraging people and train people who are going to promote health online to be able to provide the information.”

Dr Herdy said the problem in expecting doctors to do web writing was it was a time consuming process with legal liability.

“If you give general advice on a website which people apply specifically it can have legal hazards,” he said.

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