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How technology is transforming health care

A doctor reads a blood pressure gauge.

Got a health care question? Google it.

Need a prescription? Order online.

Want the lowdown on your physician? Check out your doc’s online rating. (Five stars and you’ve got a winner. Two stars and you better keep looking.)

For millions of consumers, the web is quickly becoming the first line of defense for understanding and solving health care needs. And today, consumers have a wide range of online resources at their fingertips -- search engines, chat groups, message boards, social media channels, blogs, podcasts and countless other information Web sites.

“There are probably more people asking health questions via the Google search box on any given day than are asking doctors around the globe,” said Dr. Roni Zeiger, Google’s chief health strategist.

Health questions often crop up suddenly, posing a huge inconvenience. Consumers like Marietta Szubski, 45, turn to the web when they want instant gratification -- knowing what the problem is and how to fix it.

When Szubski’s 6-year-old daughter Lily complained of an earache and jaw pain, her first stop was Google. Szubski, a copywriter from Seattle, was immediately able to check off different symptoms and find information about how she could help relieve her daughter’s pain.

“If I feel something weird, I see something interesting, or if my kid has a condition, the first thing I do is get on the Internet to get all the information that I can,” Szubski said. Scouring the web for answers isn’t a cure-all, but she says it helps her bring intelligent questions to her health care provider.

About 61 percent of U.S. adults search for medical information online, according to a June 2009 study conducted by the Pew Research Center, which looked at the social aspects of health data. That compares to just 25 percent in 2000, thanks to faster broadband connections and technology advancements.

Mobile: A ‘powerful change agent’

Experts say smartphones and mobile applications are quickly becoming the vehicle for online health care innovation.

“Mobile is a powerful change agent,” said Susannah Fox, associate director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project.

Health-related mobile apps today can determine how many calories you consume, and how many of those you burn walking. They can help you figure out your sleep patterns, track your pregnancy, and teach you how to resuscitate someone.

About 17 percent of cell owners have used their phones to look up health or medical information, results from a 2010 Pew study on mobile health trends shows. Among 18- to 29-year-old cell phone users, the figure is 29 percent.

Whether searching with computers or phones, the way consumers use the health information they find is changing, especially as new technologies and platforms emerge.

A decade ago, consumers sought medical information mostly through search engines and websites. Today, the popularity of social media has spurred people to have health-related conversations and get advice from their peers.

“People are not only gathering health information online, they’re sharing what they find, and they’re creating their own health information,” Fox said.

Doctor ratings

Websites like RateMDs, DrScore, and Angie’s List allow patients to rate and gather information about medical practitioners.

Call it the “Yelpification” of the medical business.

These physician rating sites work in the same way sites like Yelp or Citysearch do, when consumers want to find good eats. They provide feedback on doctors and their staff, using systems that score everything from punctuality to helpfulness.

Ken Joldersma, 45, a web designer from Lake Mills, Wis., recently signed up for Angie’s List. He says it’s helpful to get reviews and personal experiences of people who have first-hand knowledge.

“It gives you a more general idea of what people think overall of that doctor and of the quality of their work,” he said.

But ratings are only as good as the reviewers. Patients can unreasonably damage a doctor’s reputation by posting a terrible review. And the reviewer’s credibility and experience can sometimes be unreliable.

Szubski said she finds the information on these review sites to be generic.

“The stuff you really want to know -- the down and dirty personal -- you can’t find there,” she said.

Pew research shows that only 5 percent of online health consumers have posted a review of a doctor. Fox says that’s because lots of people want answers, but not everybody has the time or interest to contribute.

Consult with your doctor

The online health information free flow -- as well as the U.S. government’s push for doctors to keep electronic medical records – has also led to concerns about patient privacy. Health care policymakers and consumer advocates have raised serious questions about who should have access to patients’ medical records and under what circumstances.

While doctors often encourage their patients to use online tools to look up health information, many also warn it’s only a first step. Zeiger advises consumers to take the information they find on a webpage and consult with a doctor, who can interpret the data and provide guidance.

“The right answer isn’t always the same for everyone,” said Zeiger. “Health data is only relevant in the context of a conversation.”

Fox said consumers still rely on health care professionals for a diagnosis or treatment. But they’re much more likely to get connected with others online when dealing with chronic issues, such as how to manage pain or prescription information, she found.

When 42-year-old Ellen Frank noticed that her 11-year-old son, Danny, had sprained his thumb, the first place she turned to was Google. Frank, a doctoral student in social work from Evanston, Ill., says the injury didn’t seem that serious, but she wanted to get a sense of how to help him cope with the injury.

“I feel lucky that we have access to so much information through the Web, because when something goes wrong with your health -– the most frightening part is probably not how you feel, it’s the uncertainty and fear associated with it,” Frank said.

“More information is always better than less information, as long as it’s from a reputable source.”

Now that’s sound advice.

About the author

Daryl Paranada is the associate web producer for Marketplace overseeing all daily website content and production, as well as producing multimedia features -- including the popular economic explainer series Whiteboard -- and special projects. Follow him on Twitter @darylparanada.
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