Help build information driven patient behavior

Historically, we’ve often thought of the doctor-patient encounter as something of a silo. Patients come in with symptoms, and the doctor addresses them, perhaps ordering tests or referring the patients down the line of colleagues.

That model inexorably changed with the Internet. Today, patients come to their appointments educated on symptoms, treatments, and even us. They are frequently prepared with research and granular questions. They are engaged with the process, and often hopeful and prepared to work with their health care team as a result.

As physicians, we need to help build this culture of motivated, information-driven patient behavior. In my experience, I’ve overwhelmingly found that knowledgeable patients make for more successful, rewarding appointments and relationships. This is because when patients have skin in the game, they are more likely to listen, comprehend, and stick to a suggested course of treatment.

Much has, of course, been written about what happens when misinformation gets out there. There’s no question the fight to save lives through vaccinations lost precious ground when information erroneously linking autism to inoculation continued to circulate long after the original research had been debunked. Yet cases like this are exactly why I believe that doctors must invest more fully in the process of educating our patients outside of the office, in their public lives.

By this I mean joining the health care leadership ranks on social media, on blogs and in local papers, and at community meetings and gatherings. When the press calls a city mayor trying (commendably) to help people drink less soda one of the year’s lone and foremost wellness voices, we must ask whether we are doing enough to educate and advocate.

Specifically, I would urge us all to begin with prevention. Currently, our medical system does not yet strongly incentivize this, meaning that there’s a real need for authorities with accurate information to get out there and fuel conversations about these issues.

And here’s the core point: Just because you’re not a TV doc or a social media maven doesn’t mean you can’t make a meaningful difference. As a health care professional, you have the opportunity for leadership in your community. Take it. Give a talk at a local school or retirement home; pitch an op-ed to your local paper; add a wellness page to your practice website.

It won’t happen right away, but if we each contribute even a little to the information pool, the needle will shift a little as well. The more this happens, the more office time we are afforded to do what matters most — coming together with our patients to improve health care outcomes, one appointment at a time.

David B. Agus is a professor of medicine and engineering at the University of Southern California. He is the author of The End of Illness and blogs at The Doctor Blog.

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