In Brief

With millions of Americans trolling the Internet for health information, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) is conducting a major biennial randomized national telephone survey to find out how people obtain information about health and cancer. The results suggest that physicians can use people's frequent Web use to improve patient care and communication.

The team has conducted two of the surveys so far, one of 6,300 people, and another of 5,500 people. A third survey is due out later this year, and the NCI is planning a similar survey for doctors.

Already, the surveys show shifts in people's information-seeking activities and preferences. For instance, while people's use of the Internet as their initial source of cancer information stayed about the same, their preferred source of information changed: Over time, more people said they wanted to see their health care provider for such information-55 percent in 2005 compared to 49.5 percent in 2003-and fewer wanted to use the Internet for that purpose-27.8 percent in 2005 compared with 34.2 percent in 2003. That said, a relatively small number actually went to their doctors during their most recent search for cancer information, though more did so over time: 23.5 percent in 2005, compared with 10.9 percent of people in 2003.

The data suggest a couple of things, says NCI psychologist Bradford Hesse, PhD, who directed the surveys. One is that "people want to go to their providers, but they are going to the Internet first"-likely because it can be difficult to get in to see one's provider in a timely way. Second, people are becoming more selective about the information they find on the Internet.

"They understand that a lot of the stuff out there is low quality, and they need some help in interpreting what they find," Hesse says.

Medical systems and doctors can harness these findings to improve patient communication, Hesse believes. Possible applications include:

  • "Information prescriptions." Doctors would prescribe high-quality, vetted Web readings in the same way they do medicine. The concept is already being practiced in some venues, including the managed-care organization Kaiser Permanente, which reimburses physicians for taking time to educate their patients, Hesse notes.

  • Better physician training. Doctors could be trained in the best ways to communicate with Web-informed patients who have questions.

  • Patient access to medical records. Patients could access their own medical records so they have more control over their health care, for example, to get results of a biopsy immediately instead of having to wait anxiously for results, Hesse explains. The concept isn't a radical pipe dream: It is already part of a 10-year plan in the United Kingdom, he notes.

The surveys aim to take advantage of a trend that's here to stay, Hesse believes.

"We're starting to apply our knowledge of this new technological world to help create a different kind of practice-one where patients are more involved and in the loop, and they and their physicians have better shared information and decision-making," he says.

Further Reading

For more information, visit the survey Web site at