Doctors: There is tremendous opportunity in the online space

I got a really unexpected honor recently: according to Sharecare, I’m the top online influencer for children’s health.

I truly didn’t see it coming. I didn’t go into the online space to be an influencer. I’ve been writing about health and parenting for more than twenty years; when publishing moved into the online space, I just moved along with it. But having been online, blogging and doing other social media, it has become increasingly clear to me that I need to be there—and that more doctors need to be there with me.

The main reason? Because that’s where the patients are. According to Pew Internet, eight out of ten people with internet access look up health information online. I’m seeing it more and more in my patients; “I looked it up online, and…” is something I hear all the time now. People don’t wait for an appointment, or even for their doctor to call them back—they Google their symptoms, and very often make health decisions based on what they find.  If we really care about the health decisions our patients make, we need to do everything we can to be sure that they find good information.

Which means getting online ourselves.

We need more doctors and other health professionals writing good content, but getting online doesn’t necessarily mean writing. It could mean finding good websites and sharing them. It could mean commenting when we see something that we agree with—or don’t. It could mean engaging in one of the many conversations going on in social media about health.

It seems like most of the conversation about doctors being online involves concern about ethics and professionalism. I admit that I’ve seen some stuff on Facebook and Twitter that has made me cringe, and clearly it’s not a good idea to give specific medical advice online (nothing can replace a good history and physical examination). But this is all manageable.

Dr. Katherine Chretien did a study of Tweets sent by doctors and found that only 3% might be considered unprofessional, and less than one percent had any private patient information. Overall, these are small numbers.  As my doctor-blogger colleague Wendy Sue Swanson says, we are way worse on elevators than we are online.  It’s easy enough to come up with guidelines and education to help doctors navigate the online space ethically, professionally and safely.  Another doctor-blogger friend of mine, Bryan Vartabedian, who writes a great blog called 33 Charts, has some really good ideas about this, including a recent post about how he handles online questions from patients.

The thing is, we can’t let these concerns stop us from getting online—because people like Jenny McCarthy are there and doing a better job of giving bad information than we are of giving good information.

There is also tremendous opportunity in the online space. There is so much that we doctors are supposed to be doing and saying and teaching people in our always-too-brief appointments; what if we sent them to good websites (or content we create ourselves) for generic health information, and spent those precious minutes the way each patient needs us to? Obviously we can’t do this for everyone, but if we could do it for even a few, it could make a real difference.

And even more, the Internet brings tremendous opportunities for connecting with and learning from our patients and their families. The Internet is changing how we think about health; it has empowered people to look for different kinds of answers and to share their experiences with others.  As doctors, we have so much to bring to the conversation—and so much to gain.

So, here’s my message to my profession: let’s not get left behind.  Let’s find ways to support health care professionals in giving patients what they want and need online—and in doing it well. Let’s think of the Internet as an extension of the exam room space—and a tool to help people lead healthier, better lives.

And my message to patients and families: be patient with us doctors. We’ll get online with you sooner or later (maybe you could encourage your doctor to do so!). In the meantime, remember to check in with us about what you find when you go there. We want to make sure that you are making the best health decisions possible–after all, that’s our job.

Claire McCarthy is a primary care physician and the medical director of Boston Children’s Hospital’s Martha Eliot Health Center.  She blogs at Thriving, the Boston Children’s Hospital blog, and Vector, the Boston Children’s Hospital science and clinical innovation blog.

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