Patients Google their symptoms, doctors need to deal with it

Many doctors roll their eyes whenever patients bring in a stack of research they printed out, stemming from a Google search of their symptoms.

A piece by Zachary Meisel in TIME.com describes a familiar scenario:

The medical intern started her presentation with an eye roll. “The patient in Room 3 had some blood in the toilet bowl this morning and is here with a pile of Internet printouts listing all the crazy things she thinks she might have.”

The intern continued, “I think she has a hemorrhoid.”

“Another case of cyberchondria,” added the nurse behind me.

It’s time to stop debating whether patients should research their own symptoms.  It’s happening already, and the medical profession would be better served to handle this new reality.

According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 61% of patients turn to the web to research health information.  That number is from 2009, so presumably, it’s higher today.  Health information online is akin to the Wild Wild West.  Stories from questionable sites come up on Google as high, or higher, than information from reputable institutions.

For instance, I recently wrote that, when looking for CPR videos online, many of the videos that come up on YouTube were of questionable accuracy.

Dr. Meisel comes up with some sensible ideas of how doctors can help patients in this era of abundantly online health information:

… doctors can guide their patients to Internet sites that exclusively present current, peer-reviewed and evidence-based health information.

And, perhaps more importantly,

doctors and nurses are going to have to shed the presumption that the Internet makes patient care harder. The sanctimony that comes with the eye roll and the cyberchondriac label may be an extreme example, but it’s still a problem if doctors continue to walk into the exam room with the belief that patients always need to be disabused of the wrong and sensationalistic information they picked up while trolling the Net.

Getting online and helping patients navigate through the trove of health information on the web is a new physician responsibility for the 21st century, like it or not.  It’s what I try to do here on KevinMD.com, along with the links I post on Facebook and re-tweet on Twitter.

But doctors need to shed their disdain the Googling patient first, before more can get online to help them.

 is an internal medicine physician and on the Board of Contributors at USA Today.  He is founder and editor of KevinMD.com, also on FacebookTwitterGoogle+, and LinkedIn.

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