Updated: Jul 10, 2018
Are you one of those people who always googles their health problems and tries to diagnose yourself? Ever wonder what your doctor really thinks of you?
We live in a time of remarkable access to information. When I want to find a new restaurant to try, I search Yelp and check reviews. When students conduct research for a school paper, they will often start with Wikipedia. If I’m shopping for something, I will often start with Amazon. These are all great resources.
In a similar fashion, when people have a medical problem, most will do an internet search before seeing a doctor. In preparation for a doctor’s appointment, some patients may even have a list of questions and multiple print outs from websites. This is a huge change as compared to even 10-15 years ago (before the first smart phones were invented). It coincides with the trend away from the paternalistic model of the patient-doctor relationship, which was more common a generation ago in America. Now, more and more patients are proactive in their own health care. This leads them to question their doctor more.
Some physicians may feel intimidated by the patient who comes to an appointment with multiple questions, but they shouldn’t! I welcome such situations since it tells me that the patient and their family members take their health care seriously. It also allows me to spend less time on explaining the basics of their problem and more time on more critical (and possibly more complicated) medical decision making. I’ve found that the more proactive a patient is about their health care, the easier it is for me to care for them.
Unfortunately, this new access to information also comes with some down sides. The most obvious one is that it’s extremely difficult to determine which websites are truly trustworthy sources of information. It is one thing to select a restaurant by using reviews from amateur “foodies,” and it’s another thing to self-diagnosis one’s belly ache or eye problem based on a random website. It’s very difficult to determine if the author of an online article is truly an expert on the subject matter. Also, for medical topics, I often find that websites do not properly reference medical journal articles, so it’s hard to know where the information is coming from.
In addition, a website or author may be biased in some way and may be presenting only selective information on a medical topic. A good example of this would be a website sponsored by a pharmaceutical company to promote a particular drug. Some doctors who have a strong online presence and are true experts in their fields may be consultants for pharmaceutical or medical device companies. These doctors are paid to promote certain treatments or products and it may be difficult to tell in an article or website.
Also, relying on crowdsourced information (e.g. Wikipedia or Facebook group message boards) is not always reliable. Contributors to Wikipedia articles are not always experts in the field. Neither are the moms in your local Facebook group. Using crowdsourced information can be quite risky when relating to your personal health. I tell my patients to be careful with what they read online and always cross-reference that information with me or their other health care professional.
Despite these possible drawbacks, I believe we are entering a golden age of online health information. I welcome patients who have done their homework. Patients are becoming more educated and proactive in their health care. During doctor visits, patients can have higher quality discussions and better understand their health conditions. I think it’s great for patients and doctors alike!