Patients and physicians in the digital age

The digital age has had a deep and likely permanent effect on the patient-physician relationship. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had physicians beg me to provide them with a way to stop their patients from Googling their symptoms and diagnosing themselves before their first office visit and much to their chagrin, my answer is always the same, “You can’t stop them. Get over it.”

The Internet acts as an enormous and easily accessible virtual research library for patients, granting them access on the one hand to quality, data-driven information and personal perspectives that can provide tremendous value and on the other hand to information that is no better than old-fashioned quackery.

But this access to information has not translated into improved interactions between patients and their physicians. It is clear to me that we all need help in rethinking how we can best work together, especially because I believe that we are still in the nascent stages of this age of disruptive new tools that delight some and threaten others. Time and time again I hear stories describing the ways in which this technology seems to be moving us backward instead of ahead:

  • When Timothy B. Lee went to a dentist highly recommended on Yelp, he was asked to sign a “mutual privacy agreement” that would transfer ownership of any public commentary he might make in the future to the dentist.
  • A TechDirt blog post reported that plastic surgeons have sued patients for their online negative reviews and a neurologist sued the son of a stroke victim for negative comments about the physician’s bedside manner.

Instead of pitting patient against doctor, these tools should be increasing our collaboration.

The days of the paternalistic family doctor who dispenses advice and counsel to an acquiescent, unquestioning patient are clearly over, but that needn’t be a bad thing.

Importantly, this issue features prominently in the new proposed CMS rules for accountable care organizations (ACOs) under the Affordable Care Act. An ACO is a network of doctors and hospitals that share responsibility for providing care to patients. ACOs play an important role in healthcare reform because they are intended to make providers jointly accountable for the health of their patients, providing them with strong incentives to cooperate and save money by avoiding unnecessary tests and procedures. While the focus of ACOs is collaboration at the provider level, the end game is all about the patient and increasing the quality of his or her healthcare experience.

In order for ACOs to qualify for shared savings, they must provide patient-centered care that is influenced by the patient autonomy movement. Before becoming CMS Administrator, Don Berwick wrote a provocative article in Health Affairs calling for a new definition of patient centered care as “the experience… of transparency, individualization, recognition, respect, dignity, and choice in all matters, without exception, related to one’s person, circumstances, and relationships in health care.”

In order to facilitate this shift, we need to resolve the current tension between the philosophy that idealizes the physician as always being right and patients’ newfound autonomy and access to information. We need to engage in a thoughtful discussion about how the new disruptive digital technologies can help both patients and physicians get what they need. After all, both have the same ultimate goals: good clinical outcomes and a meaningful relationship.

The good news is that these disruptive technologies can be the very mechanism we need to develop more accountable, quality-driven healthcare delivery systems because they can address some of the significant gaps in patient-physician communications that are so detrimental to the relationship. The Consumer Reports National Research Center conducted patient and provider surveys about the doctor/patient relationship and concluded that patients would get more from doctor office visits if they planned ahead, took notes during the appointments, and conducted careful online research for information. Other studies have shown that patients remember only about half of what physicians tell them during their visit and that 90 percent of patients receiving a new medication reported their physician never described the drug’s side effects. Perhaps most disturbing of all, more than 30 percent of patients were unable to name their diagnosis after being discharged.

Technology, far from being the villainous entities that so many care providers see, can actually improve a patient’s experience and address those disturbing statistics. Websites now provide patients with the tools to prepare for upcoming visits by listening to actual conversations between providers and patients that have the same diagnosis; they can organize their questions before the visit; they can record their visit using digital or mobile recording devices; and they can review the recording after the visit with caregivers and family members to better understand how they can partner with their physician’s advice.

For disruptive solutions to be successful, all of us must be willing to adapt the traditional doctor-patient relationship. Patients and physicians alike are confused and disoriented by the new digital world, even while being empowered by the knowledge they can impart. These cutting edge technologies have the potential to dramatically improve a patient’s healthcare experience, but to get there, we first have to engage in some good old fashioned talk.

Kent Bottles provides health care leadership consulting and blogs at Kent Bottles Private Views.

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