Patient Focus

The Digital Reality of Seeking Oral Health Advice Online

In today’s hyper-digital world, the internet has become more than just a tool for writing emails, posting on social media, and chatting with friends: it is now the first stop for instant answers to oral health questions.

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April 1, 2017

In 2013, the Pew Research Center published a fascinating study that revealed the cyber habits of adults living in the United States. “Online health seekers” or “online diagnosers,” as Pew dubs them, are those who have used the internet to search for answers on serious conditions, general facts, and minor health problems.1 According to the 2012 study, 81% of Americans admitted to searching “the net” and 72% confessed to browsing for health advice just within the year alone.1 Although an undeniably astounding number, the details surrounding our utilization of the internet as a sort-of digital healthcare professional may be even more interesting.

There are many reasons why we choose to log onto our laptops, iPads and smartphones for oral health advice, specifically. Aside from it being a quick and convenient way to quell our curiosities, the content found online provides us with insight into what is going on with our bodies and may actually help us communicate more effectively with clinicians. However, is there a downside to having all of this knowledge at our fingertips, and if so, what is it?

Advantage vs disadvantage

Education is fundamental, and it is especially significant when it comes to understanding how to keep our smiles strong and healthy. Let’s imagine a scenario where one of these “online health seekers” begins to experience pain in one or two teeth whenever he or she drinks something cold. By having access to the internet, he or she can perform a search for symptoms and instantly land upon hundreds of pages of helpful data. Now, instead of using the information to self-diagnose, he or she can examine his or her teeth and gums, compare what he or she is seeing to photos of various conditions, and then take that knowledge and make an appointment to visit the dentist. This would be an example of attaining oral health literacy, which the American Dental Association (ADA) defines as “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate oral health decisions.”2

As the leading resource that helps consumers become oral health literate, the World Wide Web is home to a plethora of edifying literature, but could it be causing some of our harmful impulses and anxiety? In some instances, yes.

Although it is beneficial to have a general understanding of our own dentition, there is no doubt that we sometimes take our research to a level that may not be healthy. Cyberchondria, the digital form of hypochondria, is a twenty-first century phenomenon that refers to the “unfounded escalation of concerns about common symptomatology based on the review of online search results and literature.”3 A cyberchondriac, for instance, may spend hours behind the keyboard trying to find out why his or her gums appear irritated and red. Instead of simply asking a professional, he or she will continue to browse until finding the answer. In this case, the more benign explanation could be a treatable gingival disease, whereas the worst-case scenario could be the early stages of gum cancer. Which of the two conditions do you think a cyberchondriac would self-diagnose first?

Finding credible information

What is perhaps growing even faster than the number of online health seekers and diagnosers is the quantity of health-related resources that appear on our computer screens. Unfortunately, after we come up with our burning oral health questions and hit the “enter” key, Google and Bing can’t filter the results to display only reliable websites, so then we are forced to navigate through hundreds of links.

However, just as effortlessly as we can find oral health information online, we can also stumble upon other resources that help us evaluate the credibility of the websites we choose to look at. Per the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), consumers should ask themselves five questions before considering the written word of a website: Who runs it, what does it say, when was the information posted or reviewed, where did the information come from, and why does the website exist?4 That said, the NIH also recommends that consumers never exclusively rely on the information found online, and to always follow up with a healthcare professional before making any decisions.

When searching for credible advice, there are several reliable resources available for consumers to explore. Websites operated by the different dental associations, such as the American Dental Association (ada.org), American Academy of Periodontology (perio.org), Academy of General Dentistry (agd.org), and the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (aapd.org), as well as websites of major oral care product manufacturing companies, such as Colgate’s Oral Care Center (colgate.com), likely provide the highest degree of credibility as the content is factual, current, and authenticated by professionals in the field.

On the contrary, consumers should be cautious of websites similar to WebMD and MedicineNet, which may seem more enticing since the information is typically easier to understand and quicker to access, despite being outdated, vague, and inexact in certain cases. Users of these websites can also take advantage of features, such as symptom checkers, that deliver immediate “results” which are oftentimes erroneous. Nonetheless, it must be kept in mind that although these sites seem to offer all of the answers, they lack the absolute credibility that the resources above possess and should not be used for self-diagnosis.

A word for professionals

Patients want to feel a sense of empowerment by becoming active participants in both their care and the decision-making process (that is why oral health literacy exists, after all). For this to effectively occur, clinicians, in addition to administering services, should be prepared to guide patients who wish to do their own research online.

As discussed earlier, the reality of internet content is that it is not entirely factual, and it is imperative for professionals to communicate that message. If patients are inclined to search for oral health advice online, they should be educated on resource credibility, supplied with an up-to-date list of relevant websites to visit, and most importantly, always given the recommendation to speak with a clinician, hygienist, or other healthcare professional before drawing conclusions about the state of their health.

 

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