There’s no denying that the Internet has been an industry-changing phenomenon across a wide variety of fields. When it comes to healthcare, though, it’s suffered a rockier relationship.
The reason behind this strained relationship can be summed up handily in one word: skepticism. Skepticism from doctors, nurses and really anyone who spends time diagnosing patients. For the most part, this skepticism is understandable — after all, anyone with an Internet connection can set up a blog these days. Further, the average Internet user doesn’t always recognize the difference between well-researched information from a credible source and, well, Uncle Joe’s blog about how he got rid of his plantar warts. Even Google, which recently released “improvements” to its health search explained that “the list [of symptoms generated by search queries] is not authored by doctors and of course is not advice from medical experts.” And with an increasing number of patients searching for free medical advice online and making their own self- (and often mis-) diagnoses, you can see where the relationship between doctors and the Internet hit the rocks.
Despite this rocky relationship, the relationship between patients and the Internet is in full bloom. Every month, patients engage in over a billion health-related searches, and this number is only growing. I see only one logical response for doctors in the face of this patient demand: To get over their skepticism and get involved. The first step in this regard is realizing that, for every patient who is convinced of her diagnosis based on information from unreliable Internet sources, there’s another who is making sure he’s using a trustworthy website that provides information from real doctors — and, in a perfect world, information regarding that doctor’s background, licensing information, disciplinary history and even peer and patient reviews.
The glass is half full here, and doctors can fill it to the top. How? This is where the “get involved” part kicks in. Doctors can support and participate in those websites they find most reliable and they can create their own sources of information, whether it’s a blog, answering questions online or posting a YouTube video regarding common questions in their practice. Doctors — the world is begging for your expertise and, as we’ve seen, in the absence of more visible doctor participation, celebrities like Jenny McCarthy, Lance Armstrong and now Paula Deen, are using their platforms to become de-facto experts on a number of critical health topics.
Here’s the good news: The Internet is never going to replace a one-on-one doctor visit – and we should question any website or application that suggests otherwise. But with the average length of a doctor’s visit typically only 8 minutes long, by promoting and creating online information from doctors, the Internet can help patients get better educated and actually help to enhance the relationship they have with their actual doctor.
The physician Internet road does not need to be a rocky one. It just needs more intentional bricks to be laid by doctors. The more physicians get involved online, health-related websites will be held to a higher standard and everyone will ultimately benefit.
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.