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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  • SusannahFox

    I’m guessing that the original post contained links to source material for those stats, some of which come from the Pew Internet Project. If you want to read more about how people use the internet to gather and share health information, please see:

    Pew Internet: Health

  • kevinmd

    My fault, the links were lost during the editing process. They have now been added. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.


  • Karen Sibert MD

    Like anything else, it’s a two-edged sword.  Patients can get a lot of unedited information of dubious accuracy.  On the other hand, forums such as HealthTap, where patients can ask questions of physicians, can be a way for patients to find out about things that they don’t want to ask their own doctors.  It can help circumvent all the hearsay they otherwise may get from friends and relatives.

  • Mark Britton

    Thanks Karen.  As the author of this post and the CEO of Avvo (, I must point out that Avvo has one of the largest free medical Q&A forums on the web.  We would love to see you participating there as well!


  • Diane

    As a health care provider and a person with chronic health problems that are building on each other, I am one of those folks who does a lot of research. My PCP has even asked my opinion on ideas once in a while because he knows I try to stay on top of things. But over time *I* have learned to recognize the better sites vs. the one mostly run by common folks only. It’s a shame that I’ve never heard of AWO. I’ll have to check it out. It’s always good to have reputable advice out there! 

    And I can say that on one of the forums I participate in, the need for knowledge is great. Even “specialists” treating this very common problem don’t know the ins and outs. My PCP did a better job than the first specialist I went to. So for patients to have the power to be able to know when they are not getting good care and to finally change doctors as I did is worth it’s weight in a good online support group alone.

  • SocialDentalNetwork

    Should it still be ‘skeptics’ at this point…or “the woefully out of touch with their business?”
    We look forward to the public learning more about Avvo as a consumer health referral and information source, and dental practices utilizing an evolving array of digital visibility sources.

    How we search has shifted, which somewhat alters our decision making habits (online reviews) as consumers. Doctors need to have interactive and consistent representation within these expanding online environments, the time for debating that fact has passed. Relate it to websites in ’98 or the practices still resisting digital now…in 2012.

    Great point about exceptions with pushy know it all patients…furthermore, if that’s the case it is the responsibility of the practice to communicate effectively and set that standard, just as it is to deal with difficult personalities. In a professional, friendly, and engaging manner – often the most difficult part.

    Don’t underestimate patients, educate them as to what certain online resources may not be the best – and arm them with those that do communicate beneficial health info. (2 edged sword becomes 2 birds with 1 stone)

    The public has already adapted, our physicians and dentists need to do the same or realize the unfortunate decrease in production.

  • Ron McLaughlin

    The last statistic that the writer includes here (13 minutes
    for the average physician/patient time per visit) is certainly a wake-up call
    for patients, many of whom have no choice but to get more details on their
    health conditions online or wherever else they can find them. But, the other
    numbers are a wake-up call for doctors, who, as the author suggests, need to be
    able to work with the trend, not against it, to be successful in today’s
    healthcare sector. It’s extremely important for doctors to recognize that
    patients will come into the practice “armed” with knowledge (or in some cases,
    misinformation) from the web, but it’s also key for doctors to understand that,
    should their actual provision of face-to-face services get squeezed even more,
    patients may end up defecting elsewhere. While utilizing the power of new
    technology, doctors must always remember that the “human element” of care is
    ultra-important and even more so, sometimes when the last remnants of face-to-face interaction seemingly are limited.
    Doctors who consider this can often find creative ways of managing their time
    well while effectively letting patients know that they care. Ron McLaughlin, CEO, 

  • Simon Sikorski MD

    Educated patients are great. But doctors and hospitals should start considering where patients get their education. It only makes sense that the docs should become prescribers of educational resources… best place to do it: their own websites. We teach about this during our medical marketing seminars.

    For the doctors that already are doing marketing campaigns just one note: don’t promote your specialty. Promote the educational resources instead. Become a trusted source of this and you’ll win the patient. 

  • Anonymous

    The health care providers definitely need to change with the times. It is a fact people do research online not to spy on the health system but because they are concerned about them or their loved one’s medical issue and are unable to get information. The health care provider like doctors should take ownership of disseminating the information be it through a website or otherwise. Resources for both patient and their caregivers is a great way to help them go a long way past a “13-minute” visit in person.

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