Increasingly, I find that many of my patients’ parents have googled their children’s problems before bringing them to see me in my clinic. Gradually, I have been eased from being the first and primary source of healthcare information by Dr Google. Should I be concerned? Yes and no.
Yes, because there is such a pleothora of information out in cyperspace that it is difficult to distinguish the facts from the trash. Anyone and everyone can set up a blog or website and give their two cents’ worth. Whether their two cents is worth anything, given the inflation nowadays, is questionable. In the websites of reputable centers such as the CDC (Centre for Disease Control), universities and peer-reviewed journals are a lot of useful information but the general public is generally not equipped to interpret this information and apply it to their own conditions. Support groups and information produced by companies are sometimes useful but often dubious and laced with hidden agendas.
No, because I have taken on Dr Google as my partner in my clinical practice. While I am no longer the first source of information, I remain the trusted source to help the parents sieve through the information and recommend the helpful path. Quoting Aurora et al, an informative opinion article from the American Medical Association Journal of Ethics, Virtual Mentor. May 2012, Volume 14, Number 5: 363-436, The Patient, the Physician and Dr Google
From a thorough review of the patient communication literature, Arora et al. recommended that in addition to exchanging information a responsive health care system should also find ways to: (a) enable patients to manage their own care; (b) foster healing relationships with the care team; (c) support patients in making sound decisions, taking evidence-based medical knowledge and personal values into account; (d) manage the uncertainty associated with medical diagnoses and probabilistic treatment recommendations; and (e) help patients deal with and respond to their own emotions
I also agree with the author, Dr Hesse that
Unlike other sectors, the health care sector must rely on a shared understanding of complex processes to be optimally effective. According to the Institute of Medicine, that shared understanding can and should be extended to patients . Online supports for patient engagement may eventually become an integral part of the process. In fact, new data from the Livestrong Foundation suggest that patients do better at self-management once they begin to feel comfortable with their ability to search for and find medically relevant information from a variety of sources.
I am not taking a backseat to Dr Google but partnering with him in my patient care. Dr Braddock shares his opinion about this medical trinity in Through the Physician’s Eyes: The Patients (Internet)-Physician Relationship. He notes,
Similarly, by demonstrating a respectful rather than scoffing attitude toward the patient’s sources, one can convert a potentially adversarial discussion into a more collegial one. When patients share their sources of information, they are also demonstrating trust in us and giving us insight into their thinking. What do they really think of our diagnoses and treatment recommendations? These are questions for which we need answers; they hold the key to fostering patient adherence to treatment regimens. We can make the patient feel comfortable by acknowledging that they are not taking their medications, or that they are taking alternative treatments outside of our prescribed plan. These situations also offer an opportunity to give patients advice about finding reputable sources of medical information. We can ask them about their sources, and along the way suggest sources we know to be providers of good quality information.
As we doctors have embraced other technologies in our patient care, we must recognise that the Internet is another tool in our arsenal. Like other technologies, it must be used responsibly.