Study: Dr. Google a key consultant for majority of cancer patients

Millennials looking at their cell phones
Survey finds that majority of cancer patients of all generations increasingly rely on the internet to gather information after a cancer diagnosis.

As the number of people diagnosed with cancer continues to climb, so does the number of those who are surviving the disease. Researchers are finding that the internet plays a key role in how millions of patients and caregivers gather information about everything from cancer type and prognosis to treatment options and support groups, though Americans of different generations approach their search quite differently.

A 2012 Pew Research Center study found that 72 percent of U.S. internet users had searched the web for health-related information, with the vast majority beginning their quest by typing key words into general search engines like Google, rather than dedicated health websites like WebMD. The figure was higher—82 percent—for millennials (aged 18 to 36) compared to Generation X (aged 37 to 52) and baby boomers (aged 53 to 71). By 2017, 89 percent of those diagnosed with cancer, of all ages, went online in search of answers about their disease, according to a recent Healthline survey of 1,500 cancer patients, survivors and caregivers.

Information overload

In the span of a single generation, patients have pivoted from having difficulty finding medical information and connecting with other patients to information overload, according to Healthline. But while the internet can be a valuable tool in finding answers to medical questions, it also comes with the risk of incomplete, misleading or even false information.

Going online to get cancer information for background and to learn about innovative treatments, such as clinical trials, is great. The internet allows you to get more information at a faster pace. But like online reviews for movies or restaurants, you have to be discerning.
The internet is not such a good thing if that's your only source of information.” - Dr. Arturo Loaiza-Bonilla, Chief of Medical Oncology and Medical Director of Research at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® in Philadelphia. 

Dr. Bonilla recognizes that generational differences are key in how people respond to a cancer diagnosis. “Baby boomers are typically very trusting of their physician and will allow us to give recommendations and, if given options for treatment, often want the doctor to decide,” he says. “Millennials tend to come in more informed. They look online and are more numbers-driven. I tell them that numbers are medians and don’t 100 percent relate to you as a person, but I will put it into context. They’re always looking for new things and have more of a mixed approach, but they want the power to make the decisions. If you tell them about new therapies, they want to jump on those things. There are different mindsets for each generation.”

It’s not surprising that millennials, many of whom have never known a world without the internet, are three times more likely than baby boomers, and twice as likely as Gen Xers, to join an online cancer community after diagnosis, according to the Healthline survey They also “place a higher degree of trust in online resources than older generations.”

The power of online support groups

That pattern continues when it comes to staying engaged in an online support group, with 59 percent of millennials remaining plugged in, compared to 51 percent of Gen Xers, and just 37 percent of boomers. Survivors of all generations, however, credited online support groups with helping them cope with the fear of recurrence and staying informed of long-term side effects. The internet also helped 61 percent of millennials to seek a second opinion, more than any other generation, the Healthline survey showed.

Dr. Bonilla, who at age 36 straddles the generational line between millennials and Generation X, says he encourages patients to talk to him about the information they are seeking—clinical trials, supplements or prognosis, for example—so he can help direct them to credible online resources.

It’s critical, Dr. Bonilla says, that physicians, particularly oncologists, recognize that in today’s world, online resources are a key part of a cancer patient’s journey.

“We tend not to like to put too much online because we don’t like to give medical advice without seeing a patient, but the internet is a resource for patients and caregivers to get more information about new things happening and to provide some emotional support,” he says.  “Technology and the internet are here to stay, so the quality of the content needs to be more refined, and as that happens, hopefully there will be ways to determine what’s real and what’s fake news and improve the veracity. These are matters of life and death, not just opinion.”