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Canadians are increasingly turning to the internet for health advice. Studies show the quality of the information found depends on the source. ((iStock))

Canadians may feel overwhelmed with health and lifestyle information, but that isn't stopping them from searching for important diagnostic information on the internet, a CBC News/Leger Marketing survey suggests.

When it comes to accessing health information, 41 per cent of the Canadian adults polled said they turn to online sites centred around a specific disease, medical issue or health-related product. Nine per cent visit online patient communities such as chat rooms and support groups.

What is perhaps most remarkable is that 67 per cent of the time they trust the information they're getting, the survey suggests.

Andrea Berenec of Toronto is typical of the trend. When something ails her she turns to what's increasingly being called "Dr. Google."

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Andrea Berenec of Toronto turns to the internet when she wants to find out what ails her. ((CBC))

"So if it's for a sore throat, for example, I turn to the internet first because it then helps me evaluate what it might be linked to," she said in an interview with CBC News.

Women are more likely to turn to the internet for health advice, according to the CBC/Leger poll. A research study released in November by the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, supports that trend.

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"What we found was that women wanted to learn about health on their own terms and also that they may have felt embarrassed about their health issue," said lead researcher Dr. Julie-Anne Carroll, "The anonymity of asking for information online is appealing to those who do feel embarrassed."

But a recent study done by researchers at the Department of Pediatrics at Nottingham University Hospital in Britain casts some serious doubt on the validity of health information found online.

Their study looked into 500 websites and found only 39 per cent provided the correct information to a question about common childhood ailments. Eleven per cent gave a wrong answer and 49 per cent were unable to provide any answer.

Media sites unreliable

The study found that government-run sites were consistently accurate in their health advice, while news sites were right only 55 per cent of the time and those that were sponsored by a product or service gave no helpful advice.

The study was published in April in the international peer-reviewed journal Archives of Disease in Childhood.

Still, the Patients Association of Canada — an organization of individuals who have been treated by the health-care system — advocates using the internet to research how to manage their own health.

'Patients are much more empowered now when they come into the health-care system because of the internet.' —Sholom Glouberman, Patients Association of Canada

"Patients are much more empowered now when they come into the health-care system because of the internet," PAC president Sholom Glouberman told CBC News.

He's particularly enthusiastic about online chat rooms and communities where people can share information about their specific condition.

"We wrote an article about that in a British medical journal that showed that groups that were peer groups looking at particular issues self-corrected mistakes very quickly and most of that information is very good," he said.

Doctors are not as enthusiastic.

"Misinformation travels along exactly the same social pathways as accurate, useful knowledge," warns Brett Taylor, an emergency department pediatrician at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax.

"In fact, it may be that misinformation, because it is more likely to be sensationalized, distributes better."

Allaying fears

Taylor says patients are coming into the emergency room armed with more information and he's spending more of his time allaying fears.

A 2009 study suggested that health advice gleaned from the internet is changing the doctor-patient relationship, and not necessarily in a good way.

The Spanish study concluded that 31 per cent of doctors believe the internet complicates their relationship with patients and undermines their credibility. The study, based on interviews with 660 doctors was published in a Spanish language medical journal.

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Dr. Mike Evans at Toronto's St. Michael's Hospital is ordering more tests to allay the fears of 'cyberchondriacs.' ((CBC))

Dr. Mike Evans at Toronto's St. Michael's Hospital welcomes the age of online health, but admits it has changed the dynamics at his office. For one thing, he's ordering more tests.

"I don't think I need to test this person, but if they're going to walk around 24/7 being worried, then maybe I need to do a test to reassure them," he told CBC News.

People who rely too heavily on the internet for information are called cyberchondriacs, and Evans admits they can be challenging.

He's begun trying to work the internet aspect into an advantage by monitoring patients by email after an initial in-person consultation. He's approaching the project with great caution.

"So, one part of it seems like a no-brainer," he said, "Someone has a disease that I can check in on, I can manage their chronic disease and I can send them support material.

"But I also have incredible terror about it," he's quick to add. "The patient has any symptom and they flip me an email, the person who wants narcotics, the mom who every time her kid sniffles is sending me an email."

The general population survey was completed online Nov. 10-17 using Leger Marketing's online panel. A sample of 1,514 English-speaking Canadians aged 18 or older were surveyed. The youth survey, of 506 Canadians ages 12 to 17, was completed online Nov. 11-18 using Leger Marketing's online panel.