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How the internet is transforming our experience of being ill

Doctor referring to the internet

Press release issued: 6 March 2014

The last decade has seen a remarkable shift in how people use the internet in relation to their health and it is now talked of as a routine feature of being ill.

Professor Sue Ziebland, Director of the Health Experiences Research Group, based in the Nuffield Department of Primary Health Care at the University of Oxford, will share these findings with health practitioners and researchers at the South West Society for Academic Primary Care (SW SAPC) meeting hosted by the Centre for Academic Primary Care at the University of Bristol, today [Thursday 6 March].

This study examined interviews with patients conducted between 2001 and 2013 and explored how people talked about the internet, capturing changing attitudes towards the use of the internet for health across the last decade.  

In the early 2000’s people who sought health information online saw themselves as particularly engaged, expert and activated patients. By 2013 the web had become an almost routine part of many people’s experience of health and illness. The internet has transformed how people make sense of and respond to symptoms, decide whether to consult, make treatment choices, cope with their illness and connect to others.

The study found that people want more than just information online, they also seek reflections, insights and practical advice from other patients. Every year millions of people use sites such as Oxford’s www.healthtalkonline.org to learn about their health issues from other patients. Film, animations, sound, pictures and personal experiences online make health information more digestible for people from all backgrounds. By helping people to learn about their condition, prepare for consultations and demonstrate to doctors their interest and involvement, the web may even help to undermine some health inequalities.

Increasingly doctors are aware of this and recommend useful sites to their patients yet, even in 2013, patients were reluctant to talk to their doctors about what they find online,  fearing that such revelations might damage their relationship with their doctor.

Professor Sue Ziebland said “GPs and nurses who recognise that people are using the internet when they are ill can support and discuss the information with their patients; those who do not recognise this shift can unwittingly undermine and patronise their patients.”

Further information

About the Centre of Academic Primary Care
The Centre for Academic Primary Care (CAPC) is one of the leading centres in the UK which form the NIHR School for Primary Care Research. Within the University of Bristol, CAPC is an integral part of the School of Social and Community Medicine, which is an internationally recognised centre of excellence for research and teaching in population health sciences.

CAPC conducts high quality research within a number of themes relating to primary care and general practice and provide teaching throughout the medical undergraduate curriculum. The research and teaching is characterised by a multidisciplinary approach, as staff include academic health professionals, (GPs and nurses), statisticians, social scientists, health economists, and support staff.

About the Society for Academic Primary Care
The Society of Academic Primary Care, SAPC, is made up of researchers, educators and practitioners from a range of disciplines who share a commitment to the development and delivery of primary care. SAPC works closely with stakeholders from across the primary care community to achieve its goal of advancing primary care through education and research. For more information, visit: http://www.sapc.ac.uk/index.php

About Healthtalkonline.org
Healthtalkonline.org provides information on a range of illnesses and other health-related issues though real-life experiences shared on video, audio and in text format. Thousands of people have shared their experiences on film to help others understand what to expect from health conditions such as breast cancer or arthritis including issues such as treatment, changes to daily lives and support.

The site is produced through a partnership between the DIPEx Charity (registered charity No 1087019) and the Health Experiences Research Group, based in the Nuffield Department  of Primary Health Care at the University of Oxford and is accredited by the Information Standard.