Macmillan Cancer Support, one of the largest British charities surveyed 2000 cancer patients recently. Of which, 39% indicated they would turn to the internet for information about their diagnoses and 27% would get confused, worried, and even saddened after doing so. Macmillan explained the feeling of uncertainties often come a diagnosis and this prompted patients to go online and read up on their respective conditions and prognoses. That’s why the charity introduced its first digital nurse specialist to its online community back in 2017, so that patients’ queries are answered by a trained human professional.

Dr. Rosie Loftus, Chief Medical Officer at Macmillan said it’s understandable for patients in this digital era to take charge of their own health but the medical community ought to note sometimes, the internet may not be the most conducive place to seek adequate support. An influx of anxious patients going after the internet for answers may not present an encouraging outlook too. Dr. Loftus believes it’s vital for cancer patients to feel supported from day one. This will not only require a dedicated workforce to provide cancer patients with the help and details they need but also directing them to accurate resources to set their medical journey right.

More information does not equate to better decision-making

Indeed, Samantha Kleinberg, Associate Professor of Computer Science at Stevens Institute of Technology believes “being accurate is not enough for information to be useful”. In fact, she thinks too much information may lead people to make bad decisions as there is a gap in the way we handle new knowledge and what we already know. As such, apart from supplying individuals with new information, it is also crucial to assist them build upon former knowledge and understand how new information can be used.

Kleinberg derived at her conclusion based on her latest study which was published in the February 13 issue of Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications, in which she and colleagues asked 4000 participants questions on topics with varying degree of familiarity. These questions ranged from scenarios that’s not possible for one to be familiar with like “How to get a group of mind-reading aliens to accomplish a task?” to others that are closer to everyday life such as ways to manage bodyweight or choose a specific diet and participants are to make decisions on each of them.

What Kleinberg and her team uncovered was people performed really well in extremely novel scenario like the one involving mind-reading aliens, but as the topics get more familiar, the less able they become in providing a sound decision. Kleinberg reasoned that’s because in a brand-new situation, people will focus only on the problem, since they are not able to add in what they knew from prior knowledge. She cautioned her study does not want to shed a negative light on new information but it’s important to highlight how they may affect decision making in the long run.

In the case of cancer patients, they may not be able to digest new information obtained online at face value, believe them and use them in their interests like people without cancer. Cancer patients may second guess what they already knew and become less confident in their choices and ultimately, make a less favorable decision.

Information sharing and patient-physician relationship

Conversely, an earlier review study has a more positive note on internet health information seeking and its impact on patient-physician relationship. Researchers reviewed a total of 18 articles published between years 2000 and 2015. In general, some patients regard turning to the internet for details as an opportunity to discuss their conditions or even verify what they have read online with physicians. In the process, patients may feel more in control of their condition and increase their confidence during consultation as a result.

In the long run, such information sharing also facilitate greater trust between the two parties as patients are more comfortable with doctors’ advice and perceived their suggestions as more effective. Nevertheless, researchers did note that more quantitative analyses are required to ascertain if there’s a direct causal relationship between the increase prevalence of patients searching for information on the internet and patient-physician relationship. Besides, it will also be worthwhile to hear inputs from the physicians themselves. As long as communications continue, there should not be overconcern.


Author Bio

Hazel Tang A science writer with data background and an interest in the current affair, culture, and arts; a no-med from an (almost) all-med family. Follow on Twitter.