Paging Dr. Google

Three years have gone by since Time magazine published a now-infamous essay about patients who Google. According to the author, Dr. Scott Haig, Googlers were among the worst possible patients, armed with “a barrage of excruciatingly well-informed questions” and spewing sentences “burst with misused, mispronounced words and half-baked ideas.” His disdain couldn’t have been more clear.

Unfortunately Dr. Haig committed the classic logical error of assuming “this patient is a Googler, this patient is obnoxious, therefore all patients who Google are obnoxious.”

But the genie was already out of the bottle. Although many information-empowered patients were quick to denounce him, more than a few physicians must have privately applauded Dr. Haig for giving voice to some of their own misgivings about patients’ use of the Internet.

The medical world has always been rather ambivalent about symptom-Googling and online research by patients. Will patients overreact or draw the wrong conclusions from what they read online? Will they show up in the exam room with a stack of printouts? Most of all, will it alter the doctor-patient relationship when patients have better access to information?

The tide, it seems, might be slowly beginning to turn on this issue. Not too long ago, Time magazine printed another essay about patients who Google – only this time, it was titled “Googling symptoms helps patients and doctors.”

Oh, sure, the cast of characters included a supercilious, condescending, eye-rolling intern and nurse. But guess what? It wasn’t the patient who was the problem, writes Dr. Zachary Meisel: “The real problem was with my team: we weren’t well equipped to deal with her online homework – and it became a distraction.”

Dr. Meisel writes:

… To debate whether patients should or should not Google their symptoms (which a surprising number of doctors seem to enjoy engaging in) is an absurd exercise. Patients already are doing it, it is now a fact of normal patient behavior, and it will only increase as Internet technology becomes ever more ubiquitous. The average Joe has more health information at his fingertips – both credible and charlatan – than all the medical libraries ever built put together. So the real question is, What can professionals do to translate this phenomenon into better health for their patients and the public?

Hallelujah.

Although health care professionals will probably continue to struggle with this for many more years, there at least is a growing recognition that the Internet, when used appropriately and effectively, can be a powerful tool for patient care.

But what this entire debate seems to be missing is the significant number of Americans who don’t even have access to online health information, let alone the wherewithal to become Googlers.

The Pew Research Center recently released a report examining Americans’ information-seeking behavior online, and the results are concerning. Among the findings: People of color, people with disabilities, older adults and adults with limited income and education are among the least likely to obtain health information online. Among adults with a college degree, for instance, 93 percent of those surveyed said they went online for health information; for those who had less than a high school education, it was 38 percent.

Those who had broadband were more likely to go online than those who had dial-up access. Rural respondents also used the Internet at lower rates than either urban or suburban residents.

There’s already a health literacy gap between those who are well educated and those who are less so. Health disparities among Americans who are minority and poor have been well documented. Now we also have a growing health information gap between the Internet haves and have-nots.

Which should we worry about more: the fact that patients have access to Google and might misuse it, or the fact that hundreds of thousands of people are disadvantaged by not having online access at all?

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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