How to discuss online health information with your physician

Two articles recently caught my eye while I was spending some time on Twitter. First, an op-ed piece was published on Time.com discussing how patients and doctors perceive the use of the online health information. The article was closely followed by the results of a recent PEW research study which stated that 80% of Americans used the internet to “prepare for or recover from” their doctor visit.

The results of the PEW study were less than surprising to me. Everyday I have a concerned mom or anxious dad refer to something they have read online.

Everyday.

And, everyday I get to learn about new articles and websites that are claiming to have reputable health information. I learn from my families who bring in articles and links, and often share the good information with other families who may be struggling with the same concerns.

As a medical doctor who regularly navigates the web, however, I did not expect nor appreciate the author’s tone in the Time.com piece. I was made to feel that all doctors were like lazy cattle, being poked with an electric switch towards a glowing computer screen.

I find that troubling as a practicing pediatrician. Although doctors have traditionally been thought of as “late-adopters,” not all of us fit that archaic mold. There are many, many doctors who are embracing e-communication of all types within their daily medical practice. And all successful doctors practice “shared clinical decision-making” with their families, regardless if the internet is a piece of the information puzzle.

How can you discuss online health information with your physician, without being labeled a “cyberchondriac?”

Here are some things to consider before you approach your provider with some internet research of your own.

Critique what you find

Commercial advertisers and agenda-based groups can be very deceiving online. Does the information have sources to original, peer-reviewed medical articles?

Who is writing the article, and what are their credentials? Who is paying for the study to be completed? Are there a lot of banner ads, or references to a certain brand of product? Does the writer of the article have financial interest in the items they recommend? Dr. Meisel did state this well, saying,

Many patients are going to discover the best online health information way before their doctors do. They, too, have a responsibility: patients will need to signal to their doctor how they conducted their search in a way that was smart, directed and grounded in evidence. Only then will the Google stack be recognized and used in a helpful, not counterproductive, fashion.

My favorite public sites for health information include:

  • Is your child sick? This feature is on our practice’s website to give families some information about common childhood symptoms. The site also give some guidance about what symptoms are concerning enough to contact the on-call physician.
  • www.uptodate.com This is a very well-designed site providing general information on health conditions and their treatments.
  • www.healthychildren.org A website full of childhood health information developed by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
  • www.cdc.gov General information on illness, vaccines, and travel concerns.
  • www.vaccine.chop.edu Complete, concise vaccine information.

If your provider allows, send links and articles to your doctor before the visit

Bring a list of keywords that you searched. This allows your doctor to look over the information more critically, and hopefully more thoughtfully. If your doctor does not allow you to provide information prior to your appointment, don’t expect organized discussion about your findings in a brief appointment slot. Thinking about online information critically is a time-consuming process. Give your provider ample time to look over the information after your appointment.

Be prepared for a “no”

It may be possible, that despite your best efforts, keywords or articles you have found may have been misleading. If your physician disagrees with some online information you have found, it is very appropriate to ask, “Why?” Your provider should explain why the information may not be relevant or appropriate for your specific situation, hopefully providing alternate online references to help continue your search.

We are partners

Bring information to your provider with an attitude of partnership and shared decision-making. No one likes a confrontation. Navigating health online information is a learning process for all of us. If we don’t listen to each other, we don’t learn.

If patients and doctors can have open dialog about information found online – good and bad – we can take care of patients better. And that is more than Dr. Google could ever do alone.

Natasha Burgert is a pediatrician who blogs at KC Kids Doc, where this article appeared both there and in Survivor: Pediatrics.

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  • Peter Elias

    I would add the MayoClinic and Wikipedia to the list of resources for patients. I wrote about my transition to a supporter of Dr Google here:
    http://bit.ly/HxXPsi

  • http://twitter.com/gohealthcare Go! Healthcare

    I agree with Peter, the MayoClinic is a great resource for online information.  Great article by the way!

  • drdisaia

    The lay press has little respect for physicians much of the time. I advise my patients to watch that which they read online…except at my blog of course. :) 

  • http://twitter.com/WhatNext_Cancer WhatNext.com

    These are great tips!

    Patients dealing with serious illness often feel out of control. For example, when one has cancer, a patient may be given the option of one of a few treatment plans. Patients may want to connect with others who have shared their specific diagnosis to gain perspective. This empowers the patient, who may want to know what it’s really like to live with certain decisions. Each person is different and no two cases will be the same. But having some insight can help. Armed with this knowledge, the patient can feel more informed and confident in speaking with the doctor – and together – determining the next steps that everyone is comfortable with.

    Karen
    WhatNext.com

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