The Internet is where patients go for pre-visit consultations

As a physician, technology cannot replace you, but it can make you more efficient and effective.

This was the message from Richard Satava, MD, who spoke on the future of surgical technology at the recent Seattle Surgical Society Annual Meeting.  Dr. Satava’s speech was fascinating as he laid out the future for robotics, remote surgery, internal locomotion actuators, molecular imaging biosurgery, etc.  I looked over my shoulder a couple of times to make sure that I had not mistakenly joined a Star Trek convention.

Dr. Satava made it clear that none of this technology could replace the physicians themselves.  He spoke eloquently regarding all of the ways that technology falls short in diagnosing, treating and simply caring for patients.  Technology would only make physicians more efficient and effective.

Dr. Satava’s message applies to social media as well.  While nothing will ever replace in-person, real-time office visits, physicians can use social media to increase the efficiency and efficacy of patient visits.  Many physicians are skeptical about this (believe me, I spoke on social media immediately after Dr. Satava), for they see the Internet as a source of misinformation and misdiagnosis that hurts more than helps.

For those skeptics, let me offer the following:

  • 80% of Internet users search for health information online
  • 44% research doctors online
  • 43% ask questions in online forums
  • 45% ask questions to be better prepared for a physician visit
  • 13 minutes:  Average duration of a physician visit

Two things are happening here:  Patients are feeling empowered by the massive increase in plain-English, care-related information available on the Internet.  On the other hand, they are feeling disempowered by the traditional healthcare system that is reducing their time in the system and thus their ability to get care-related information directly from their doctor.

The result?  The Internet is the place where patients go for the pre-visit consultation.  And love it or hate it, physicians must figure out how to participate in the online conversation because its use will only continue to grow.  Patients can spend hours online researching their symptoms, looking at treatment photos and asking doctors questions about their condition.  They can research a doctor’s resume, awards, publications and even possible misconduct.  Occasional misinformation or not, this is far more patient-favorable compared to trying to cram the full-download into 13 minutes.

And, this should be physician-favorable as well.  Yes, it is painful when the patient comes in with the Internet printout and they are horribly self-misdiagnosed; but that is the exception.  The rule is that the patient comes in variably but incrementally smarter which speeds up the information exchange.  The patient asks more-informed questions and the physician gives more-tailored advice.

It is important to keep in mind that, like surgery robotics, a physician’s efficacy only increases the more he or she understands and utilizes the technology.  The more physicians can address commonly asked questions on a website; address common treatment issues in a video blog post; or even share their practice philosophy with prospective patients, the more efficient and effective the entire cycle of care will be.

Mark Britton is the founder and CEO of Avvo, a free resource that rates and profiles 90% of all doctors and lawyers in the U.S.

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