Raise your hand if you’ve ever gone online in search of a diagnosis that fits your symptoms or to read everything you can find about a condition you’re dealing with or a new medication you’re taking. Now raise your hand if you’ve ever talked to your doctor about what you’re reading on the Internet.
The Internet has made a bottomless well of information readily accessible to anyone with an online connection. But it seems we’re still figuring out how to incorporate this fact into the doctor-patient relationship in ways that allow everyone to feel comfortable with it.
Doctors tend to cringe when patients show up for an appointment with a stack of printouts from the Internet.
Patients tend to resent it when the doctor ignores or dismisses their personal research.
Doctors may not mind their patients’ efforts to become more informed but they don’t always trust the patient’s ability to recognize whether a source is reputable.
Patients want to know how to evaluate a source’s credibility but they don’t know where to start.
These are some of the impressions I gathered earlier this week from a health care social media chat on Twitter that focused on, among other things, that pesky pile of printouts in the exam room. (For those who haven’t discovered the weekly tweetchat, it takes place every Sunday from 8 to 9 p.m. central time; follow along at #hcsm and brace yourself for an hour of free-wheeling, fun and insightful discussion.)
A1 I think HCP are becoming for receptive to patients brining online material in. Good docs will look at it as an learning opp I hope #hcsm
— Alan Brewington (@abrewi3010) June 2, 2014
— April Foreman (@DocForeman) June 2, 2014
— Heather Z (@ZHeatherChamp) June 2, 2014
T2 From my experience, info more likely to be accepted by HCP if evidence based. #hcsm
— AnnMarie Walsh (@padschicago) June 2, 2014
So what are we to glean from all of this? Although there doesn’t seem to be a single right way for patients to share health information they’ve found online, some approaches may be more helpful than others.
Most doctors don’t have time to wade through large stacks of printouts, so patients will probably have more success if they stick to summaries and as few pages as possible.
How the topic is introduced seems to matter. Is it an open-minded exchange or is it an argument? Is it respectful of each other’s perspective? Doctors have greater medical knowledge and hands-on experience but patients are the experts when it comes to their own experiences.
One of the conundrums is how to sort the wheat from the chaff. There’s a lot of questionable health information floating around online, but if patients haven’t learned to critically evaluate what they’re reading for accuracy and credibility, they can easily be led astray by misinformation. On the other hand, it’s hard for patients to develop these skills if their doctor is dismissive of their efforts and unwilling to provide coaching or guidance.
Frankly, the train has already left the station on this issue. A 2009 study by the Pew Research Internet Project found that looking for health information online has become a “mainstream activity.” Sixty-one percent of the adults who were surveyed said they used online sources for health information, and one in 10 said that what they learned had a major impact on either their own health care or how they cared for someone else.
But here’s another interesting finding: Patients whose doctors encourage them to search out health information online are, on average, more engaged in their care and more satisfied, regardless of whether they and the doctor agree on the information. In other words, it’s the participation and the open dialogue that really matter.
Quibbles over whether patients should talk to their doctor about health information they’ve found online are no longer the point. It’s time to move on to the bigger issue of how to have these conversations in the most beneficial way possible.