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Study: Online information may improve cancer patients’ opinions about doctors

March 20, 2007

Accessing high-quality health information on the Internet may improve breast cancer patients’ opinions about their doctors, according to a new study conducted by the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Center of Excellence in Cancer Communications Research, funded by the National Cancer Institute.

Prior research shows that many breast cancer patients go to the Internet to learn about their disease. This is the first study to examine how patients’ opinions about their health-care providers affects how they seek online health education and support and, in turn, how using these services influences how they feel about their doctors.

The study sample included 231 recently diagnosed breast cancer patients who were referred by their health-care providers to a study in which they were provided a free computer, Internet access and training on how to use an online health education and support system called the Comprehensive Health Enhancement Support System (CHESS) “Living with Breast Cancer” program, a computer-based health education and support system. The patients were recruited from Wisconsin and Michigan. Surveys were administered before group access and then four months later. Data about how women used the system were also collected.

Generally, a worse doctor-patient relationship was associated with higher use of the information-related services, while more frequent use of the information services was associated with patients being more satisfied with their doctors.

“It makes sense that cancer patients who are less confident in their health-care providers might be more likely to turn to the Internet as a source of education and support,” says Bret Shaw, an associate scientist with the CHESS program and lead author of the study. “However, this study also suggests that providing patients access to high-quality health information about breast cancer and its related concerns may validate some of what they hear from their health-care team and improve how they feel about their doctors. In other words, referring patients to high quality information about their illness on the Internet may improve the doctor-patient relationship as well.”

The results of the study are published in the April 2007 issue of the International Journal of Medical Informatics.

The Center of Excellence in Cancer Communications Research was funded by the National Cancer Institute to improve the quality of life for cancer patients and their families, particularly those from underserved populations.