A recent article published in the New York Times revealed that online medical patient forums provide useful information for the FDA regarding unreported side effects from drugs that are regularly prescribed. This information can be incorporated into existing data, better inform patients of risks, and prompt further research on many drugs. These open forums—and the universality of the internet itself—allow researchers to collect data from a sample pool that is much larger than any standard clinical experiment. However, because these forum-users can be anonymous and unverified as actual people, much less as scientists trained in the art of data-collection and presentation, the information that they post loses credibility. Some weaknesses include: the fact that the presentation of data is not standardized, the possibility that the same person could repost experiences or assume multiple identities, and finally the chance that the data presented could simply be untrue or misdiagnosed. These factors could lead researchers to misconstrue the actual sample size. Moreover, not everyone has access to the internet, which leads to further gaps in data from individuals who either cannot afford to or are simply not interested in using the internet to share personal information.
On the demand side, another article from USA Today reveals that 35% of people use the internet to diagnose themselves. This demonstrates the positive notion that people are becoming active participants in a healthcare system that is increasingly technology-based. However, since the average person is not a qualified medical professional, self-diagnosis carries a significant margin of error. Since anyone can publish information on the internet, sources can be unreliable, outdated or incorrect. Furthermore, if the trend for internet diagnosis continues to rise, doctors may also move towards administering online diagnoses, which could lead to gaps in collecting patient data (and ultimately misdiagnosis) and could leave people without internet access stranded. In person doctors’ visits are ultimately the best way to diagnose and treat patients.
In a medical context, anything found on the internet should be taken with a grain of salt—but it is useful in providing general information. Every person reacts to illness in different ways, so symptomatic clues and details should ultimately be monitored by trained medical professionals with sophisticated equipment. While credible medical research databases exist online, not everyone knows how to properly conduct a search, let alone correctly interpret and apply the data. These databases are only accessible by people with the authority of medical professionals and students who wish to further medical progress and education. If anything, this restriction of specific medical information is quality control.