A paper that needs to be written: Does WebMD save lives?

I have a few friends who are physicians. Often, they tell me tales of crazy patients who did/said (both) crazy things. Often, the topic of eHealth platforms like WebMD comes up. Each of those friends has expressed a variant of anger at those platforms because patients self-diagnose. Thinking about it, its clear that they think that the platforms make health outcomes worse.

But is that correct? One could reply that there are a few studies suggesting that the platforms are providing reliable information. One could also reply that it solves a problem of asymmetric information whereby the doctors cannot easily “hide” information to their patients. But both replies are, in my opinion, a bit lazy. A more important question is: did it save lives?

Let me take a personal example. A few months ago, my two year old got sick. He had a fever with a temperature of 38.8 celsius. That had me worried a bit. However, I googled the information and found that children tend to have higher body temperatures than adults and the range of “worrisome” temperatures is thus a slight notch higher. This information got me reassured and I simply waited it out and kept monitoring the temperature. I did not consume any medical services in the end.

Now, lets do a proper counterfactual in which the technological constraint facing me is that of the 1970s or 1960s — not medical dark ages by any means. What would I have done absent the internet? Most likely, I would have gone to a clinic for a consult. The physician doing that consult would not have been available for another patient while he told me to go home, wait three days (or give him baby tylenol), visit back only if the temperature increased above 39 celsius.

That example may appear trivial, but it illustrates the point about how WebMD and other eHealth platforms might be saving lives: they liberate medical resources by eliminating ignorance about trivial problems that are time-consuming for physicians. In fact, I might go a step further by pointing out that there were numerous “grandmother’s remedies” still being held as true in the 1960s and 1970s — beliefs that may have been counterproductive and would have forced physicians to needlessly expend resources.

I tried to find economic studies about the effect of eHealth platforms (especially if they tested the mechanism above). Unfortunately, I found absolutely nothing. This is a paper that needs to be written.

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