Wednesday, November 25, 2009

e-Patients, Dr. Google, Your Doctor, and You

A recent article by NPR confirmed what many patients and doctors already know. The internet is leveling the playing field and allows individuals to access information easier and more quickly. Research by Pew Internet and American Life Project found:

  • 61 percent of adults say they look online for health information - known as e-patients
  • 20 percent of e-patients go to Internet and social-networking sites where they can talk to medical experts and other patients
  • 39 percent of e-patients already use a social-networking site like Facebook

Yet as individuals embrace new technology, the New England Journal of Medicine found earlier this year that only 17 percent of doctors use electronic medical records. To say doctors are conservative and slow in adapting to new ways of communicating and accessing information would be an understatement. An article in TIME magazine proclaimed "Email Your Doctor" which graced newsstands in 1998! Email communications with doctors is still the exception rather than the rule.

Many doctors actually are very concerned about patients using the internet to research information. Stories of physicians being inundated with printouts or patients insistent that they have a certain diagnosis based on a description abound. Doctors don't always appreciate patients googling their medical information.


Because although information gathering is far easier than a decade ago, the problem is data overload. How does one filter out all of the different diagnoses with similar symptoms? How does one use judgment when theirs is based on little experience? Medical students commonly come down with medical illnesses after studying a subject. It's the power of suggestion. Fever and a little neck stiffness? Meningitis. Intermittent numbness in the arm? Multiple sclerosis. Circular rash? Lyme disease.

Only through experience and actually caring for patients diagnosed by more seasoned colleagues do medical students see the textbook descriptions come to life. Patients diagnosed with meningitis, multiple sclerosis, and Lyme disease and their associated symptoms and signs are seared into students' memories. Words in the textbook now have far different meanings. Reading and book learning while important only provides the foundation to build upon. It's seeing and doing that matter.

Doctors can't know everything. So it can be helpful if you research information and bring in some ideas or questions that you have about a particular diagnosis. I know patients are more empowered with more information, but realize there is still value in clinical expertise. Have a frank discussion with your doctor whether the information obtained by Dr. Google is accurate or relevant to your concerns. Keep an open mind. Don't be anchored by what you read. I certainly learn from my patients. My patients learn from me. It's a win-win.

While the internet can make anyone more knowledgeable, it doesn't make someone an expert. The good news is that the survey found in the end that the source people still trust the most is their doctor. So go ahead research, but find reputable sources like the Mayo Clinic or Medline Plus. Talk to your doctor and perhaps email him. Gain from both knowledge tempered with expertise.

As we all gather around for Thanksgiving, savor the time with family and friends. While I would never be mistaken for a chef, let alone a good cook, I will be making a delicious butternut squash soup which is a new Thanksgiving tradition. The recipe? Courtesy of the internet and Wolfgang Puck. How hard could it be? I finished organic chemistry.


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