While the Web has made answers to medical questions easier to find , it has not done as much to ensure the quality of the data, according to some health care professionals. And cases where patients have caused themselves harm have illustrated the potential perils of a society where health information and products can be gotten without the benefits of a medical degree or a prescription. Critics say Web sites have cropped up selling dubious or dangerous health products, while others simply misinform.
This change in the workings of medicine has left some wondering whether all of this advice and product availability is a good thing, but also whether it can be harnessed to improve health care.
"It's a good thing if it enables patients to make more informed decisions about their own health care and to interact more effectively with their doctors and the health care system," said Doug Evans, a research psychologist and director of public health communication and marketing at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services.
"What's less clear to me is whether people taking health care into their own hands is a good thing," he said. "There's a lot of misinformation out there. The social media world, the world of blogging and Web sites that are popping up...are the Wild West."
The Web has made information more democratic, but much of it may not be good, particularly when people use it to bypass speaking with their doctors.
"I don't think people are really understanding the expertise that doctors are bringing," said Lisa Gualtieri, an adjunct clinical professor at Tufts University School of Medicine's health communications program. "I think that's part of the problem with something like this. People are thinking, 'Oh, this is less expensive or this is easy, or you don't need a medical professional for something like this.' People don't really understand the complexity of it."
In July, ABC's "Good Morning America" reported on the case of a woman who had injected herself with silicone, and ultimately needed expensive corrective surgery that still left her scarred.
But that has not dissuaded all would-be amateur plastic surgeons. Wired Science reported Tuesday about a Web site that sold botulinum-derived drugs (similar to Botox) -- without requiring a prescription -- and displayed videos of how customers could use these products on their own.
"There have been so many shows on television like "Nip/Tuck" that have really promoted nonessential cosmetic surgery, and I think that also reduces the barriers to something perhaps people wouldn't really know about…all of a sudden becomes much more accessible to people," said Gualtieri.
But then came the economic crash, which reduced incomes, but perhaps not the desire for physical improvement.
"People wanting treatments, they can't really afford it through a doctor," Gualtieri said. "I think that the shows increased people's interests in these kinds of procedures. People see this as a way to satisfy that desire to have these treatments done."