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Health Data on Internet Handy

Those who fear an illness may have a new foe - the Internet - as a growing population known as ``cyberchondriacs'' find themselves addicted to health care information online.

Nearly two in three U.S. Internet users go online for health information, according to a study released Wednesday by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. But the survey found that only a quarter of Americans who seek health information online follow recommended procedures for checking its source and timeliness.

``You may get lucky sometimes going to the Internet and seeking a diagnosis,'' said Dr. Vincent Riccardi, a geneticist and internist based in La Crescenta. ``But the Internet is dangerous if you're bypassing a doctor to diagnose yourself'' - unless a patient is adding the Internet to his arsenal of information when a doctor's diagnosis isn't clear.

``In this case, the health care delivery system has to encourage this because in the future it will truncate the time a patient spends with a doctor,'' Riccardi said.

Other studies are echoing Riccardi's prognosis as health care costs soar and doctors become less accessible. The latest cyberchondriac survey released by Harris Interactive found that more people are scouring the Internet for cures.

The survey concluded that 110 million U.S. Web users have sought health care information online in the past year, up from 97 million in 2001. The study also concluded that people seeking health-related information do so three times a month, with most users visiting portals or search engines.

``Patients are becoming more educated through the Internet ... and I like working with educated patients,'' said Dr. Samuel Fink, an internist in Tarzana.

But just because the health care information is organized on a Web site with flashy links doesn't mean it's worth applying to one's daily life. Fink said people may become convinced that they can diagnose themselves without consulting a doctor - a notion that invariably leads to complications.

Fink alluded to myriad misdiagnoses involving Vioxx, dubbed an arthritis drug, but regulators changed its label adding a precaution that it may increase the risk of heart attacks. Fink said people could easily misconstrue the information online, altering their doses days before calling a doctor.

``And that's obviously a scenario we don't want to see,'' Fink said.

Still, most cyberchondriacs tend to be younger, better educated and more affluent than the general population. The survey, which was conducted via phone between March 13 and 19, said cyberchondriacs include 82 percent of people 18 to 29 years old, 84 percent of those with postgraduate education and 77 percent of people with household incomes over $75,000.

It's not only medical associations and consumer advocates that have comprehensive health-related Web sites, though. Health Net, a Woodland Hills-based managed-care company hatched its ``Women Matter'' site in March. The site is accessible through Health Net's home page at

Brad Kieffer, a spokesman for Health Net, said the company created the site to draw ``stickiness.'' That means when a member visits the site, they will stay for awhile and navigate throughout the page. Currently, a link to Women Matter is placed prominently on Health Net's home page. Kieffer was unable to provide the number of hits the site has received.

``But we are trying to take full advantage of the growing use of the Internet,'' Kieffer said. ``Our goal is to provide a full service forum to our members.''

Indeed, Health Net's site also enables people to purchase health insurance online. Fink said he doesn't have a problem mixing the world of marketing and bona fide health care information, as long as it's helpful.

``Hopefully we are always putting our best foot forward,'' he said.

Fink has been utilizing the Internet to correspond with his patients for a few years. After a check-up, he passes his business card along to his patient with an email address attached. Occasionally he will receive a question about a prescription, although he dreads the day a patient writes ``they're having chest pain.''

``If that's the case, they should always call the doctor before going online and sending an email,'' he said.


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