Health information online won’t make doctors obsolete

More patients are on the web researching health information, and for the most part, this is a good thing.

But are doctors in danger of being “phased out” by Google and other search engines?

In an interesting perspective piece by Pamela Hartzband and Jerome Groopman in the New England Journal of Medicine, the answer appears to be no.

Data without expertise in interpretation is largely meaningless. Consider this patient the authors interviewed:

“I really don’t want to read what’s on the Internet, but I can’t help myself.” Her condition is currently stable, but she finds herself focusing on the worst possible complications of the disease, such as cerebral vasculitis. Although her doctor gave her detailed information, she cannot resist going on the Web to seek out new data and patients’ stories. “It’s hard to make out what all of this means for my case,” she said. “Half the time, I just end up scaring myself.”

Patients like these are not alone, and will only grow in number as more turn to the web prior to seeing a doctor.

This may be good for the medical profession. “Information and knowledge do not equal wisdom,” the doctors write. “Physicians are in the best position to weigh information and advise patients, drawing on their understanding of available evidence as well as their training and experience. If anything, the wealth of information on the Internet will make such expertise and experience more essential.”

Doctors have to get used to the fact they are no longer the sole source of a patient’s health information. Instead, they need to serve more as interpreters of data, and be willing to separate the tangible information from the increasing amount of noise patients find online.

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  • Supremacy Claus

    No. Google research will increase the necessity of doctors.

    Think of the “This Old House Effect.” On that show, the plumber reviewed every step needed to install a toilet. One could install a toilet on one’s own with those details. It was so complicated, and there were do many traps revealed, one felt compelled to call a plumber to do it.

  • Dr. Matthew Mintz

    One of the main reason I blog is to help patient interpret the information that is out on the Internet.

  • Randall

    Agree with Supermacy, Google will increase need for doctors and some may seek 2nd opinion. If a patient has some blood streak in his cough, he will read up and imagine the worst case.
    Doctors will have to get used to patients asking more questions, which is a good thing.

  • IVF-MD

    The benefits of medical information being on the internet outweigh the hazards as long as people think intelligently and know neither to blindly believe nor to blindly disbelieve everything they read there.

    Over the past few years, I’ve noticed a repeated pattern of two types of occurrences. After I’ve spend 30 minutes of so counseling patients about their particular situation, they will often go home and research more on the internet. The next time I see them, they might smile and say “I searched the blogs and the forums and the informational websites and most of what I found agrees with what you said” By having this independent corroboration, it does a little to strengthen the bond of trust between patient and doctor. On the other hand, sometimes they come back and question “You recommended plans X and Y. But I saw that this lady on the internet got good results with plan Z.” Then it is my job to listen to her attentively, analyze the information and either agree to be open to option Z or to explain to her why option Z is a bad idea in her situation.

    There have been times where a patient reads on a forum about something another patient in Boston is trying. I can’t find anything in a journal yet, so I pick up the phone and call my colleagues across the country and chat with them about this new thing they’re trying. This beats by at least a year the time it would take for the information to be analyzed, published and appear in a journal.

    The free dissemination of information is a great thing as long as people are not foolish about how they use it.

  • Penelope

    There is a survey about who/what do people trust more when it comes to their health. Is it the internet or the doctor? I’m glad of the result of the survey. People tend to trust more on doctors, even though they browse the web first for a preliminary information but they will most likely go to the doctor to check the truth. Internet has many benefits, one of them is the vast amount of knowledge that we could not even know before. However people with the experience and not just knowledge like men and women in lab coats and hospital uniforms are more credible when it comes to our health.

  • Anonymous

    Not all patient online medical research ends in foolish hypochondria. There are, undoubtedly, specific instances where patient research prior to an office visit has been extremely beneficial.

    For example, I recently saw my physician to discuss upcoming foreign travel and the obtain the necessary vaccinations and malaria prophylaxis. I was prescribed a common malaria prophylaxis pill, which happened to be ineffective in the area to which I was traveling, according to the CDC website I had browsed earlier in the day. In this instance, I was relieved to be able to provide my physician with the name of the correct prescription for my specific case.

  • Dr. Susan Dorfman

    Dr. Kevin, you are certainly correct in saying that Health information online won’t make doctors obsolete. On the contrary…they are much more needed to initiate and engage in patient care that either originates or involves the Internet. I have just completed my doctoral dissertation on this very important topic, and wanted to share some thoughts with you (available for viewing on ).

    With the distribution of medical information to over 160 million people in the United States, the Internet has been rapidly changing the consumer’s view of medicine by providing a key opportunity for consumers and patients to become actively involved in the provision of his or her health care. Medical websites exist to help consumers use symptoms to self-diagnose illnesses and decide which symptoms require consultations with medical personnel. Internet sources have been influential as they have often been the basis of obtaining health information and making health decisions – both a benefit and a health risk. Consider these two points: In a survey that focused on Internet-based health information, 41% of respondents claimed that the Internet did affect their health care decisions, including whether to go to a doctor, treat an illness, or question their doctor. Alternatively, Jones researchers also showed only one out of every 40 self-diagnoses resulted in a patient making an office visit for a medical consultation.

    Lets also consider the financial aspect of self-diagnosis, or rather mis-diagnosis. Every patient visit equates to cost…costs that would have, or could have, been allocated elsewhere within the health system. With Internet self-diagnosis being so prominent in today’s culture, a new term, cyberchondria, has been created to describe the phenomenon of patients who use the Internet as a self-diagnostic tool to uncover potentially life threatening conditions causing them to unnecessarily spend valuable health care dollars on emergency room visits or specialist assistance. As we can see from the patient comment in your blog, this practice has become quite common.
    The consumer orientation towards self-diagnosis is not without flaws and may pose serious health implications for those who rely on the information rather than seek the advice of a health care professional. The heavy utilization of home self-diagnostic devices has raised red flags with health care professionals. With the recent shift to the Internet as a cost-effective and readily accessible tool for medical information and self-diagnosis, more patients are becoming actively involved in their own health care management.

    With more than 160 million Americans using the Internet to seek health information and the potential risk that only 4 million of those would go see a doctor in case of self-diagnosis, there is social concern about the yet-undetermined effects the Internet has had and will continue to have on patient behaviors and health outcomes. While the growing availability and use of Internet health information tools can benefit consumer awareness and participatory medicine, such tools may also expand the chance of consumer health risks associated with a breakdown in the patient/physician relationship. To understand how to ensure the needs of health consumers, the Delphi technique was used to survey panel of experts to gain consensus on potential health benefits and risks of web-based consumer health assessment tools as well as provide recommendations for safe and effective use of such tools. The study findings and recommendations are based on a compilation of expert opinions and judgments that were of value to consumers, patients, care givers, health care professionals, and health care leaders. Findings and recommendations can serve as a foundation for health care executives and leaders of the country to understand better how the Internet is being used for health care related issues and the potential health risks, dangers, and outcomes that such utilization can have on the nation.

    As the use of the Internet for health information becomes more widespread, risk to the overall consumer quality of care increases resulting from incorrect or misleading information and a growing number of health consumers who will decide for themselves to either stop or start consulting physicians based on their own self-assessment of need. Predicting and evaluating the overall safety, effectiveness, and efficacy of consumer Internet use for health information is difficult, and further research is needed to explore how this information influences the health care decision-making of consumers and how it affects their health outcomes. The results of the current study inform the discovery of flaws and strengths in the current system, which could ultimately lead to the transformation and optimal use of Internet-based health information and tools. The predictions on how such tools could positively and negatively affect the stakeholders may enable future studies in the design of action plans and changes that need to be made to maximize the strengths of the Internet while minimizing the weaknesses. One such recommendation, very relevant to this post, showed that by engaging and reimbursing physicians and other healthcare professionals at point-in-time Consumer internet utilization, our national and healthcare system and its people could benefit both health-wise and financially.

  • Joy

    If anything, the web provides INFORMATION OVERLOAD. Doctors help patients sort all these information out and provide a customized advice and guidance for their specific conditions

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