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The majority of U.S. adults online -- 80% -- use the Net to find health information. And most say it helps them get better health care, a study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project reports today.
About 93 million people go to the Net for health information, making health searches the third-most-popular use of the Internet, after e-mail and investigating a product or service before making a purchase, the study says.
People turn to the Net to search for everything from diet and exercise tips to environmental hazards and sexual problems. But the most searched-for health topic is information about a specific disease or medical problem. The No. 2 search topic: information about a specific medical treatment or procedure.
Three-quarters (73%) of searchers say the Net has improved the quality of the health information and services available to them.
Net searches also give people access to information they might not otherwise have. Eighteen percent, for instance, have looked for experimental treatments and medicines.
''People are looking for all sorts of health topics, not just symptoms of the flu,'' says Susannah Fox, the Pew project's director of research.
But Net users should greet online information with a healthy dose of skepticism, experts warn.
Numerous studies on the quality of health information available online have shown that reliable information is spotty and that patients do not always look critically enough at the sources of the information they find.
The Pew study finds that only about one-quarter of searchers thoroughly check the source and timeliness of online information.
And not all doctors are receptive to patients who come to appointments clutching printouts of Web pages.
Cara Cozine, a homemaker from Kenosha, Wis., says her doctor wouldn't even look at articles that suggested her family's symptoms might be caused by gluten intolerance, a sensitivity to wheat that has been linked to a variety of seemingly unrelated ailments.
Doctors need to find a way to ''learn how to use (the Net) in their practices effectively because the Net is here. It's not just a passing fancy,'' says Daniel Sands, who teaches at Harvard Medical School and the Center for Clinical Computing at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.
The Pew study is based on a phone survey in December of 2,038 American adults, 1,220 of whom are Net users. It was supplemented with a 20-question online survey, answered by 2,000 people.
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