Joanne Shaw, chairwoman of NHS Direct, said that as printing brought bibles to the masses, the internet has brought the canon of medical knowledge to ordinary people. This knowledge was previously only accessible in subscription journals and libraries, she pointed out.
Many doctors regard this trend as a threat but it should be welcomed, Ms Shaw argued.
'We need people to be more prepared to take responsibility for their own health and research how best to care for themselves,' she said. Many minor ailments can be safely and cost-effectively managed this way, she added.
'The internet does not diminish the role of doctors but casts them as expert advisers rather than authoritarian figures with exclusive guardianship of special knowledge.'
In an accompanying piece, Italian researchers argued that Google searches too often link to web pages that contain worrying information.
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