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University of Iowa News Release

Sept. 7, 2004

Doctors Writing New Prescriptions -- For Using The Internet

Having trouble finding quality health information on the web? You might ask your doctor to write you an "information prescription."

A University of Iowa study shows that the nearly no-cost, quick effort is an effective way to put people in touch with quality health information on the Internet. The finding, based on a study of pediatricians and families at one hospital, appears in the September issue of the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.

In addition to helping families, sharing Internet sources for health care information also helps health care providers, said Donna D'Alessandro, M.D., the study's principal investigator and UI associate professor of pediatrics in the UI Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine and a pediatrician with Children's Hospital of Iowa at UI Hospitals and Clinics.

"We hear from patients and families that they're having trouble finding good health care information on the Internet, and we hear from health care providers that they think the families they treat are using some questionable information," she said. "Using Internet prescriptions to guide families to good information will help solve these problems for both groups."

The randomized control study involved two groups of parents at Children's Hospital of Iowa. All the parents first were surveyed about their Internet use before their child's regular office visit. Then half the parents were randomly assigned to receive information prescriptions during the visit while the other half did not get these prescriptions. Two to three weeks later, both groups were surveyed by phone about their post-visit Internet use.

Based on participants' self-reporting, the group that received the information prescription was more likely than the other group to use the Internet for health information in general and specifically for child health questions. One of every three parents receiving prescriptions said they used it. In addition, 66 percent of the health-related web sites used by parents in the prescription group were sites recommended by the pediatricians.

"We saw that the parents were looking for information on the Internet, and that's important for their child's health. But we were even more pleased to see that the majority of the sites they were visiting were the ones recommended by pediatricians," D'Alessandro said.

"Writing an information prescription is basically no-cost and easy. It's the cost of the paper on which to list recommended web sites and the brief time it takes to do it," she added.

The pediatricians participating in the study could recommend any sites they wished. However, the prescription included a pre-printed list of four sites at the American Academy of Pediatrics, MEDLINE Plus, General Pediatrics.com and the Virtual Hospital (Web addresses listed below).

The prescription also included tips for finding quality web health care sites and listed local institutions that provide free Internet access. A quality Web site follows standards and includes what D'Alessandro and colleagues in her field consider indicators of quality.

"Quality health sites on the Internet are from a reputable source, including reputable authors, and the sites are not trying to advertise or sell a cure. In addition, the sites have dates on them so you know how current the information is," she said.

The UI study focused on a population that overwhelmingly had access to the Internet at home, so it is possible that families without home computers would need a different timeline to make use of Internet prescriptions, such as using a computer at a library or church, D'Alessandro said.

"The Internet is being used all the time. Studies show that even groups considered underprivileged are accessing and using the Internet. Looking for health information is the third most common Internet activity, after using e-mail and looking for a product or service," she said.

In addition to D'Alessandro, the research team included Clarence Kreiter, Ph.D., UI associate professor of internal medicine and with the Office of Consultation and Research in Medical Education; Susan Kinzer, a UI research assistant now with the Virtual Hospital; and Michael Peterson, M.D., former faculty member now with the University of California San Francisco-Fresno Medical Education Program. Funding included support from the Robert Wood Johnson Generalist Faculty Scholars Program.

Internet sites listed on the Children's Hospital of Iowa "information prescription":

-- the Academy of Pediatrics at www.aap.org

-- MEDLINE Plus through the National Library of Medicine at www.medlineplus.org

-- General Pediatrics.com (developed by D'Alessandro) at www.generalpediatrics.com

-- Common Questions, Quick Answers (developed by D'Alessandro and Kinzer) at www.vh.org/pediatric/patient/pediatrics/cqqa/index.html.

A checklist developed by D'Alessandro for evaluating health information on the Internet is available at the Virtual Hospital at: http://www.vh.org/pediatric/patient/pediatrics/cqqa/internethealth.html.

GeneralPediatrics.com also has links to other references on how to evaluate Internet information at: http://www.generalpediatrics.com/CommonProbLay.html#Gen%20Med%20Resources.

University of Iowa Health Care describes the partnership between the UI Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine and UI Hospitals and Clinics and the patient care, medical education and research programs and services they provide. Visit UI Health Care online at http://www.uihealthcare.com.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa Health Science Relations, 5137 Westlawn, Iowa City, Iowa 5224-1178

MEDIA CONTACT: Becky Soglin, 319 335-6660 becky-soglin@uiowa.edu

PHOTO: An electronic image of Donna D'Alessandro is available for downloading from http://www.uihealthcare.com/depts/med/pediatrics/pedsmds/dalessandro.html