Purpose: The aim of the study was to determine the extent of use of the Internet for clinical information among family practitioners in New Zealand, their skills in accessing and evaluating this information, and the ways they dealt with patient use of information from the Internet.
Method: A random sample of members of the Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners was surveyed to determine their use of the Internet as an information source and their access to MEDLINE. They were asked how they evaluated and applied the retrieved information and what they knew about their patients' use of the Internet. Structured interviews with twelve participants focused in more depth on issues such as the physicians' skills in using MEDLINE and in evaluating retrieved material, their searches for evidence-based information, their understanding of critical appraisal, their patients' use of the Internet, and the ways they handle this use.
Results: More than 80% (294/363) of members in the sample completed and returned the questionnaire. Of these, 48.6% reported that they used the Internet to look for clinical information. Gender and age were more significant in determining use than practice type or location. Information was primarily sought on rare diseases, updates on common diseases, diagnosis, and information for patients. MEDLINE was the most frequently accessed source. Search skills were basic, and abstracts were commonly used if the full text of an item was not readily available. Most reported that up to 10% of patients bring information from the Internet to consultations. Both Internet users and non-Internet users encouraged patients to search the Web. Internet users were more likely to recommend specific sites.
Conclusions: Practitioners urgently need training in searching and evaluating information on the Internet and in identifying and applying evidence-based information. Portals to provide access to high-quality, evidence-based clinical and patient information are needed along with access to the full text of relevant items.