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Never has health information been so readily accessible. An array of television programs and channels feature the latest health news and treatments, and at least 20,000 Internet sites offer data and advice on all manner of physical and mental health maladies.

While the information abundance can offer helpful insights into healthier living and disease treatments, it can also mislead people if it is dated, oversimplified or inaccurate. A 2001 survey by the California HealthCare Foundation reveals that more than 100 million Americans search online for health material that they often find incomplete or contradictory.

Not only can the information glut confuse people, but it can spur worry that they have any number of medical conditions, says David Levy, PhD, a psychology professor and decision-making researcher at Pepperdine University.

"The wealth of health information is a double-edged sword," says Levy. "On the positive side, it provides an almost instantaneous array of facts and figures. On the negative side, every time you read about a medical problem, you might think you have it."

While there's no easy way to navigate the information morass, most psychologists agree that people can best avoid confusion and worry through critical thinking and guidance from the health community. APA is among a number of groups seeking to provide that guidance.

Suggestibility influences

Feeding people's health concerns is others' modeling, researchers say. For example, psychologist Elaine Hatfield, PhD, a contagion researcher at the University of Hawaii and author of "Emotional Contagion" (Cambridge University Press, 1994), has found that people tend to "catch each others' emotions or symptoms" in their interactions, mostly without realizing it. If the catalysts are celebrities or others who people respect or admire, the chances of contagion go up, she says. When Magic Johnson announced that had HIV/AIDS, for example, public fears about the disease increased.

Role models such as parents and health personnel also strongly influence health beliefs, says Gary Elkins, PhD, director of the Mind-Body Health Research Program at the Scott and White Clinic and Hospital in Temple, Texas. For instance, during a toxic-gas leak on a college campus, Elkins found that if hospital staff provided lists of poisoning symptoms to patients--and treated them as if they'd been poisoned--patients' levels of panic and fear rose.

In turn, people's fears interact with personal stress and others' fears to trigger more symptoms, says Hatfield, noting that the constant post-Sept. 11 media reports about anthrax stoked the fears of already-edgy Americans.

Add to this the fact that many forms of media, particularly the Internet, "take on a hue of validity that's totally unwarranted," says psychologist Howard Leventhal, PhD, board of governors professor and somatic symptom researcher at Rutgers University. "When you're hearing health information at the local beauty parlor, you can be sure it's pretty bad," he says. "But it's much less clear on the Internet."

Depressive and anxious tendencies also play a role in people's misinterpretation of symptoms. Psychological research by health decision-making researcher Suzanne Miller, PhD, suggests that some people Monitor and worry about their health more than others. The more information these health "Monitors" get, the more anxious and distressed they become, says Michael Diefenbach, PhD, also a health psychologist and decision-making researcher and Miller's colleague at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia.

Mind over matter

People's focus of attention, it turns out, ties closely to their health perceptions, according to leading mind/body researcher James Pennebaker, PhD, of the University of Texas at Austin. "If a visitor sits on your sofa and you say, 'My dog has fleas,' watch them start scratching," he says. "They don't have fleas. They're just paying attention differently."

Similarly, cancer warnings could make somebody suddenly worry about a bump that's always been there. As much as peers and role models spur people's health fears, however, they can also counteract them, says Elkins. For instance, his emergency-room research suggests that patients stop imagining the worst when professionals reassure them that they will feel better. Also helpful, he says, is "getting them away from overwhelming health information."

Of course, health information in the right form and context can also aid people's health decision-making. Internet health information, for example, can benefit people if it's thorough, nuanced and accurate, note leaders of APA's Practice Directorate. To ensure such quality in e-mental health information, David Nickelson, PsyD, JD, director of the Office of Technology Policy and Projects in the Practice Directorate, represented psychology on a 1998 Internet Health Coalition project to develop an ethics code for e-health.

In another recent effort, psychologist Lisa Grossman, PhD, JD, of APA's Board of Professional Affairs, represented psychology on an American Accreditation HealthCare Commission Association (URAC) e-health accreditation project. Grossman ensured that psychologists are included in approving Web mental health information. The Practice Directorate is also working to appoint a psychologist to URAC's accreditation review committee. And in a 2000 project, Nickelson created dotCOMSENSE, a pamphlet to help consumers ensure their privacy and make sense of online mental health information.

The take-away is to think about health information critically, says Pepperdine's Levy, author of the book, "Tools of Critical Thinking: Metathoughts for Psychology" (Allyn & Bacon, 1997). "A strong dose of skepticism is a healthy antidote, not just to misinformation but to our own health fears," he says.

Further Reading

For more information on the Internet Health Coalition's ethics code, go to ihealthcoalition.org. For more information on the URAC health site accreditation guidelines, go to websiteaccreditation.urac.org.