April 2, 2013

Tips for Patients Who Use the Internet

I occasionally come across something of interest in my many email newsletters, but seldom something when I am looking for it. So this was a pleasant surprise when I came across this blog about doctors using the internet. Yes, many doctors use the internet for their personal life and a few do follow some medical news and some even blog. Most physicians don't like patients using the internet to find information about what may be a problem for them. Remember, that is why doctors exist – to answer our illness questions and to take care of our medical needs.

But in this day of technology, doctors may become a thing of the past. Computers are already diagnosing some illnesses (think of IBM's "Watson") and as programmers become more proficient, computers can only get better. This is one thing most doctors do not like, and I can't blame them. This doctor knows that people are turning to the internet because doctors are not educating them and more people want to know what is possible for their problem. In other words, doctors are setting themselves up for trouble unless they overcome their aversion to patients looking up information on the internet.

This doctor, Wendy Sue Swanson, MD really speaks to what the problems are within the world of healthcare. From monitored emails and computer activity restricted and monitored in many clinics and hospitals to interference by insurance prohibiting reimbursement for providing time to patients to give them internet information. I know this, as I cannot get three of my doctors to consider using the internet. They quickly say they are restricted and move on to other topics. The one time I tried to get more information, the doctor quietly told me to use the telephone – at home.

At least this doctor is not afraid of the internet. She quotes, “For at least 1/3 of American adults, the internet is a diagnostic tool.” The doctor also says this, “In my world prevention is key. The internet is one of those keys.” She uses a Pew report to show statistics of internet use among patients. The link is here and I encourage people to read the online version. This should make you feel better about doing online searches even though your doctor may not appreciate this. For those that really get into research you will experience what many of us come across time after time – the pay wall.

Approximately one in four people looking for health information online do run into a pay wall. This is normal for many studies and research documents. I have found that sometimes these pay walls are beneficial and prevent us from seeing studies that are bad science, junk science, and unreliable science. We do have to wonder, but that is part of the excitement in research.

Numerous studies have found that what parents learn in the doctor's office needs to be relearned and according to Dr. Swanson, that is where “Dr. Google” comes in. She is a pediatrician that wants her parents to know as much about their children's health as is possible. She believes that offering online sites to parents is part of her job as a doctor. She believes that more than one third of the parents of the children she sees have at some time used the internet to learn about the health of their children.

Contrastingly, in acute care visits for things like cough, ear infection, or colds parents rarely report that they have been online.
Tips for “online diagnosers”
1. Keep a breadcrumb trail as best you can. When we’re online we forget where we go and often don’t know who we’re listening to. Confusion comes in when families don’t remember where they have been garnering information and when they become confused by myths, personal anecdotes, and stories that lead them astray. Everything on the internet is clearly not in our best interest as parents. One solution: print things out or refer to specific links with your physician when you’re in to see them so you can look up online information together.
2. Look for advice from experts (psychologists, physicians, researchers). As parents and patients, we don’t make all of our health decisions using science but when we have the opportunity to use solid data to steer decisions, we want the correct sources. Your doctor can help vet the online voices to which you tune in. Ask your pediatrician or clinician what sites they trust the most.
3. Look for sites affiliated with academic medical centers or health care institutions. Often those sites vet and scrutinize content with their expert researchers and clinicians. I tend to encourage families to avoid sites heavily laden with advertising as I’ve learned that content on those sites can sometimes be edited to meet requirements in tone, scope, or opinion by advertisers.”

She also says, “It’s my opinion that the last thing we physicians should do is shut down our patients’ online searches. It’s a new world; we must join our patients online since nearly 1/2 of many groups are using Dr. Google to diagnose. We must guide families to trusted and valuable voices and then help confirm or redirect the results of their online learning.” You may wish to read some of her blog site as well. Dr. Swanson makes a lot of good points.

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