Researching health information online: Recognize your limitations

There are certain situations in my life where I feel really stupid. One is when CNBC’s Squawk Box senior economics reporter Steve Liesman discusses the bond market. While I recognize the words he uses as English grammar,  I find almost every word to be incomprehensible gibberish.  Recently, he informed me that “given the Feds propensity towards quantitative easing in Q4 the 10 year yield could hit 3%.” I think that has something to do with money, and I have a suspicion that it might be important.

Another situation in which I am humbled and forced to recognize my own ignorance is when I get my oil changed.  I know nothing about cars. It’s just not my thing. About half way through the visit the mechanic comes out with this round thing in his hand.  He tells me it’s an air filter. He also tells me based on my past record at the Jiffy Lube that I am due to have it replaced.  I realize that I do not know the current recommendations for air filter maintenance on a Jeep. While examining the filter with the mechanic I am unable to determine if the level of grime meets the criteria for replacement. Being totally honest, I am not even sure it is really an air filter or even a car part.

I am ok with this.  I don’t have to know these things. We all have our areas of expertise, and there is nothing wrong with having to rely on others to get through life. Before spending the money though, I Googled  the current recommendations for air filters. This was easily accessible material. It verified that based on my past history I was due for a replacement in the near future. This research helped guide my decision making. There was no misconception that I knew more than the mechanic.  I used the information to ask better questions and to navigate through an area in my life in which I am uncomfortable. Ultimately, I made the decision based less on my research, but rather in my trust and confidence in the advice of the mechanic.

For patients, a doctor visit can feel like I did at Jiffy Lube. A patient is placed in a situation where there is a profound knowledge gap. As a doctor who believes in the power of online patient engagement, I am torn.  I want my patients to educate themselves online. I want my patients to read, to learn and to educate themselves online.   But I have seen patients fall into the trap of the Dunning–Kruger effect — believing they know and understand more than they actually do. The Dunning-Kruger effect demonstrates that people overestimate their ability and knowledge when exposed to a subject. This can be dangerous when dealing with health information.

Health information is widely available online. In a simple Google search one can find a plethora of information on virtually any health topic. The problem is that health information is unsorted and often unvalidated, and thus hard to interpret in order to take action. Information can be very helpful in some cases. But in other cases it can be anxiety producing at best and  at worst flat out wrong.

Researching health information  is very important, but we must recognize our own limitations. Understanding health information is hard. Science is complicated. Scientific studies often contradict each other. Health questions often just beg more questions, not always definitive answers. For every topic we Google and read about there is a likely a PhD who makes a living researching that one question every day. While studying on our own we must also value and respect health professionals years of studying, expertise and experience.

My advice to patients is to continue to use the Internet as a supplemental tool to augment the provider-patient relationship not as a wedge to hinder it.  Use the Internet to improve your baseline knowledge, to ask better questions,  to create a higher level conversation and to better understand the recommendations.

Recognize the content you read may just be the tip of the iceberg and acknowledge your limitations.   Ultimately, use your research to help determine your level of trust and confidence in your healthcare provider.

Jeff Livingston is an obstetrician-gynecologist at MacArthur OB/GYN, also on Facebook.  He can be reached on Twitter @macobgyn.

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  • rbthe4th2

    Bettyrose has it right. I think the concern I have is that I research UpToDate, ClinicalKey/Dynamed, PubMed/Medline and the like, and get scoffed at. That concerns me, as those are medical literature databases that can be accessed online, along with some medical journals. I’ve heard the issue brought up before that we can’t understand the information, but actually many of us can. When we bring up questions related to those articles that can’t be answered by our health professionals, that’s concerning.

  • MacArthur Obgyn

    Thanks for the comments. Keep being great E patients. Great idea about a health science librarian.

  • Clare Xanthos, PhD

    Regarding your comment, “understanding health information is
    hard,” I disagree; I think it’s empowering. There are many well explained descriptions of health conditions, symptoms, and treatment nowadays, and many people are able to get a lot out of this information. If you want
    meaningful shared decision making, in keeping with a patient centered approach to health care delivery, in my opinion, the more informed the patient is the better.

  • Jenny Price Jenkins

    To all you negative naysayers out there, you need to understand something. This article was written to enlighten you, not make you feel inferior to your physician, make it appear that your physician is all-knowing while you are a measly human who doesn’t know anything about their own bodies. If we, as patients, could help our doctors better understand what it is going on with us by doing our research ahead of our appointment time and by writing down serious concerns, etc., the doctor can in turn, help us a lot faster. It goes from a case of where our condition could be any of 40 things to maybe any of 3 things. When you the patient walk in completely blind and not knowing anything, that is when you should feel inferior. Doctors today embrace social media, Google, etc., and these tools should bridge the typical wedge between a physician and his patients not make the wedge wider. Because of the power of the internet, you can have more knowledge than ever before. Embrace these tools and learn to use them for yourself and to benefit your relationship with your doctor. Learn to look at the big picture and not attack the author of this article. For when you attack someone for their views, opinions, etc., is when you truly show how close and small minded you are.

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