Health information online won’t make doctors obsolete

More patients are on the web researching health information, and for the most part, this is a good thing.

But are doctors in danger of being “phased out” by Google and other search engines?

In an interesting perspective piece by Pamela Hartzband and Jerome Groopman in the New England Journal of Medicine, the answer appears to be no.

Data without expertise in interpretation is largely meaningless. Consider this patient the authors interviewed:

“I really don’t want to read what’s on the Internet, but I can’t help myself.” Her condition is currently stable, but she finds herself focusing on the worst possible complications of the disease, such as cerebral vasculitis. Although her doctor gave her detailed information, she cannot resist going on the Web to seek out new data and patients’ stories. “It’s hard to make out what all of this means for my case,” she said. “Half the time, I just end up scaring myself.”

Patients like these are not alone, and will only grow in number as more turn to the web prior to seeing a doctor.

This may be good for the medical profession. “Information and knowledge do not equal wisdom,” the doctors write. “Physicians are in the best position to weigh information and advise patients, drawing on their understanding of available evidence as well as their training and experience. If anything, the wealth of information on the Internet will make such expertise and experience more essential.”

Doctors have to get used to the fact they are no longer the sole source of a patient’s health information. Instead, they need to serve more as interpreters of data, and be willing to separate the tangible information from the increasing amount of noise patients find online.