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LONDON (Reuters) - The number of people looking for health information online is set to soar as workers return from holiday breaks, but few will check where the information comes from, according to an international survey on Tuesday.
A report by researchers at the London School of Economics (LSE) commissioned by the private healthcare firm Bupa said that with smartphones and tablet computers set to outsell personal computers by 2012, more health information is available online and there are more ways to access it than ever before.
The Bupa Health Pulse survey questioned more than 12,000 people in Australia, Brazil, Britain, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Mexico, Russia, Spain and the United States and found that 81 percent of those with internet access use it to search for advice about health, medicines or medical conditions.
Russians search for health advice the most on the internet, followed by China, India, Mexico and Brazil. The French search for online health information the least, according to the survey's findings.
It also found that 68 percent of those who have access have used the internet to look for information about specific medicines and nearly 4 in 10 use it to look for other patients' experiences of a condition.
"New technologies are helping more people around the world to find out more about their health and to make better informed decisions. However, people need to make sure that the information they find will make them better, not worse," said David McDaid, a senior research fellow at the LSE.
In Britain, where Bupa predicted there would be 40 million hits on health websites this week as people make New Year's resolutions after their Christmas break, experts warned that much online health content is unchecked and people would struggle to know what to trust.
The survey found that of the 73 percent of Britons who say they go online for health information, more than six in 10 look for information about medicines and more than half of them, or 58 percent, use the information to self diagnose.
Yet only a quarter of people say they check where their online advice has come from.
"Relying on dodgy information can easily lead to people taking risks with inappropriate tests and treatments, wasting money and causing unnecessary worry," said Annabel Bentley, a medical director at Bupa.
"Equally, people may check online and dismiss serious symptoms when they should get advice from a doctor."
Reporting by Kate Kelland, editing by Paul Casciato