Dealing with the Growing Power of “Medical Googlers”

November 8, 2012
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The increased use of the internet by healthcare consumers has led to at least two types of medical conversations ironically illustrated by two different online features sharing a name: the “DocTalk” here, in which Arizona kidney specialists share treatment information on smartphones, and another “DocTalk,” where Ontario physician Stuart Foxman discusses such communications issues as the risks of physician’s giving too much information, and the growing irritation among physicians with patients who research conditions and treatments online.

Like it or not, these two “doc talks” are merging. While physicians and other providers are busily keeping up with changing practice parameters, medical literature and patient management (increasingly by computer, smartphone or tablet), patients are trying to keep up, too. WebMD receives more than 40 million hits a month, and anywhere from half to 80% of all Americans have used the internet to research a medical condition or symptoms. Even larger medical providers like Kaiser Permanente encourage the use of websites for gathering medical information. In addition, consumers increasingly have the ability to research and share opinions on their providers through sites like www.vitals.com.  Interestingly, the ability of consumers to rate and offer opinions on providers is not growing quite as quickly as other industries, due to reasons we’ll cover in a future post.

If you talk to physicians, many are not thrilled with this new “patient empowerment” reality. Some physicians express frustration with patients coming into their offices apparently under the impression – often false – that they are as informed about their medical condition as their doctors. In addition, a new type of patient, the “cyberchondriac,” believes that his or her condition must be the worst one they read about online. This, of course, is not a new problem; even medical students are warned “When you hear hoofbeats, don’t assume they’re zebras.”

What can physicians do, and how can digital healthcare innovation help them? It’s estimated that two thirds of patients now want doctors to recommend reliable websites to them. Doctors should be able to do more than that, and digital technology should help them:

  • Use Google news alerts and other online tools to stay current with the same breaking information that will be read by patients—this will help keep up with consumers but also stay ahead of recent (say, announced that morning) FDA Drug Alerts and other developments.
  • Find and recommend patient groups and discussion communities that benefit patients. There are thousands of such groups online, with tens of thousands of patients. Quick searches will result in better exchange of information and satisfied patients. More of this information can be searched and downloaded via smartphones and other digital technology.
  • Encourage the use of reliable smartphone apps and online news bulletins, clinical research sites and university medical centers. By steering patients/consumers toward the better-designed and monitored sites, both sides benefit from sharing good information.

The internet has made sharing information easier, and caused empowered consumers to demand more from their doctors. This new world isn’t going away, and medical innovators might be well-served to work closely with doctors—no matter the resistance—to encourage the use of information that separates hoofbeats from zebras.

Do you think physician skepticism of online health information is justified? Or is the online power of consumers helping improve and personalize healthcare? How can technology help steer things in the right direction? Is your medical device or digital health company working on a solution? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

photo: seniors/shutterstock

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