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Ask Dr. Google? When Your Patients Seek Online Health Information

Everyone has done it at some point—asked Google (or another search engine) for an answer to a question. Maybe you were searching for a restaurant review, the address for a hotel, or some information about that weird noise your car keeps making.

But it’s more serious when your patients start “Googling” symptoms and searching for information about healthcare conditions or treatments. They run the risk of finding incorrect information that could actually be harmful to their health.

A survey released by Merck Manuals in November 2018 revealed that most physicians are well aware of this conundrum. Of the 240 family physicians surveyed, a whopping 97 percent reported that patients have come into their offices with misinformation—some of which they’ve found online.  The report also noted that almost 80 percent of the doctors surveyed believe patients are more likely to question their recommendations or diagnoses because of the availability of online medical information.

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How often do your patients turn to Google?

How often do patients walk into your office and admit they’ve searched for some health information online before they arrived?

“It literally happens all the time,” said Devon Carr, MD, primary care and sports medicine physician with the Reddy Medical Group in Athens, Georgia.

These are often patients with a new health concern, just trying to learn as much as they can about the problem that looms large in their minds. They’re worried, and they’re trying to get a handle on that.

Issam Halaby, MD, Ph.D., a general and vascular surgeon in Venice, Florida, estimates that he encounters about five patients (out of about 70) in a typical week who admit they’ve gone online and searched for information.

“I am not sure how many have done so but not informed me,” he added.

Don’t ignore their concerns 

You may be tempted to brush off a patient’s questions or concerns that developed after Googling their symptoms and researching various health blogs and medical sites. But don’t. Your reaction matters.

“The worst thing healthcare practitioners can do is dismiss the concerns of a patient, especially when those concerns stem from their own work to understand their condition,” said Phil Marshall, MD, MPH, co-founder of Conversa Health, which develops tools to improve healthcare communication.

Consider it this way: the patient cares enough about his or her health to do some reading about it, he noted.

“Acknowledge their concerns because that’s why they’re coming to you,” said Carr. “And I think it’s important to teach them about the information on the internet and talk to them about reputable websites.”

That’s a big key: education. It can be time-consuming, yes. But it’s worthwhile to explain how and where to find solid, reliable health information online, rather than just advising patients to stay away from online searches altogether.

Carr tends to steer patients to websites operated by organizations such as the Mayo Clinic and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Halaby likes to refer patients to websites that are hosted by academic institutions or various national societies, like the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society, or the American College of Surgeons. The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) has also published some guidance on steering patients toward reliable health information online that you may want to consult.

“Patients are just trying to inform themselves. You want to encourage them to do it the right way,” said Carr. “Or they’re going to do it and not tell you.”  

It’s going to happen, agreed Halaby.

“My advice to my colleagues who have a negative reaction to patients seeking information online is that it is unreasonable to expect patients in 2019 to not seek widely available information and to accept this behavior as normal in current times,” he said, recommending that physicians accept the patient’s efforts as “well-meaning” and build on their efforts.

Just be ready for it, said Marshall. Be ready to consider their points and explain your own rationale for your decisions so they better understand them.

“You address their specific points and concerns, and you welcome any ideas they have that might differ from your own,” he suggested. “And if your treatment approach seems to be at odds with theirs, help them understand why, and in the end, if they wish to get another opinion, they are welcome to do so.”

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