Has the Internet Raised or Lowered Healthcare Costs?


Matt Yglesias writes about the awesome power of information technology to diagnose illnesses and save a trip to the doctor:

I was having a kind of weird problem with my left thumb over the course of the past few days….Finally I figured out that it looked to me like an infection of the cuticle….That brought me to a Wikipedia page….”paronychia”….led to a bit more Googling….typically happens to habitual fingernail biters (guilty) or people who’ve recently been in the water a lot (swimming pool on vacation).

Everyone basically agrees that this isn’t a huge deal and that you can obtain some physical relief by occasionally soaking the thumb in hot water while waiting for it to clear up. I took that advice starting yesterday morning, and today I feel a lot better….So there we have it. In a small but real way, information technology reduced the cost of this particular health care service. Productivity for the win.

Obviously there are lots of things we aren’t going to treat in this way, but I’m quite optimistic that information technology in the health care sector is going to do us a lot of good.

Obviously Matt is being a bit tongue-in-cheek here even as he makes a serious point. But I’d still like to know if his serious point is actually correct. Not about information technology in general—everyone knows how I feel about the future of robots—but about the effect of the internet on healthcare costs.

On the one hand, we have success stories like Matt’s: The internet allowed him to self-diagnose his case of paronychia and avoid wasting a doctor’s time. On the other hand, we have all the people who head to the internet and convince themselves that their finger is sore not because they hit it with a hammer last week but because they have some rare immune disorder whose symptoms on Wikipedia are eerily similar to theirs. So they head out to the doctor and demand a bunch of expensive tests.

How would you measure this? Good question. Perhaps there are places where internet service became available in half a neighborhood for some random reason but not the other half. Then you could compare the change in healthcare costs over the next few years between the two halves. Or something like that.

Alternatively, you could survey doctors. Are your patients better informed these days thanks to WebMD? Or have they become bigger hypochondriacs thanks to WebMD?

Anyway, I’m curious. A quick Google search turned up a couple of old studies that were moderately negative (basic findings: people are idiots and doctors don’t like being challenged), but nothing even remotely definitive. As for myself, I’m not sure which way I’d bet. However, based on (a) my theory that the internet makes smart people smarter and dumb people dumber, and (b) the empirical fact that there are more dumb people than smart people, I guess I have a modest belief that the internet has been a net negative. Surely this is worth a closer look?

THE TRUTH IS...

what drives Mother Jones' team of 50-plus journalists. The truth is powerful, as evidenced by how hard those with something to hide, or profit to gain, seek to discredit it. The truth, stated boldly and reported meticulously, is what draws so many readers to Mother Jones.

And the truth is, going into the final 4 days of the year we still needed to raise $TK to hit our $350,000 goal and start 2021 on track. It's nerve-wracking, wondering if the big spike we normally see at the end of December is going to be another thing that doesn't go as planned in 2020, or worse, if, now that Donald Trump is set to leave the White House (for longer than a taxpayer-funded golf trip to a property he owns), folks might be pulling back from fighting for the truth and a democracy and think the hard work is done.

It's not, and if you can right now, please consider a year-end donation to support our team's fearless nonprofit journalism so we can close that big fundraising gap and finish the year strong, ready for all that's ahead in 2021. Whether you can give $5 or $500, it all matters in keeping us charging hard, and we'd be grateful.

payment methods

THE TRUTH IS...

what drives Mother Jones' team of 50-plus journalists. The truth is powerful, as evidenced by how hard those with something to hide, or profit to gain, seek to discredit it. The truth, stated boldly and reported meticulously, is what draws so many readers to Mother Jones.

And the truth is, going into the final 4 days of the year we still needed to raise $TK to hit our $350,000 goal and start 2021 on track. It's nerve-wracking, wondering if the big spike we normally see at the end of December is going to be another thing that doesn't go as planned in 2020, or worse, if, now that Donald Trump is set to leave the White House (for longer than a taxpayer-funded golf trip to a property he owns), folks might be pulling back from fighting for the truth and a democracy and think the hard work is done.

It's not, and if you can right now, please consider a year-end donation to support our team's fearless nonprofit journalism so we can close that big fundraising gap and finish the year strong, ready for all that's ahead in 2021. Whether you can give $5 or $500, it all matters in keeping us charging hard, and we'd be grateful.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate