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Click This, Not That: Talking to Patients About Reliable Online Health Information

Danielle JonesMost physicians agree that we have an ethical obligation to help educate our patients about what’s going on with their health, but what does that look like in a world overwhelmed with digital health information? And how do we budget appropriate time when we’re already struggling to balance shorter appointment times, more documentation requirements and busier clinic schedules?

It’s estimated that 72 percent of patients get a majority of their health information online. With an abundance of biased and incorrect information on the internet, our responsibility as physicians has evolved from simply teaching patients about their health conditions to now include educating patients on where and how to find and identify reliable health information.

This premise goes back to why I use social media. We have a responsibility to share, or at the very least be cognizant of, reliable health information in the realm where our patients seek it. In the olden days that looked like an exam room; today it looks like a Google search.

Here are four ways to efficiently help ensure patients have the resources they need to find reliable health information, despite cramped clinic visits and time constraints.

  • Ask: How can you possibly know where patients find their information if you don’t ask? I have patients come in with birth plans all the time and quite frequently they’ve printed them out from a website with little-to-no additional research into the (often very specific) things they’ve requested. You can’t possibly know or understand their views unless you ask.
  • Take 2: I understand how limited our time is. I’m a resident with a busy clinic and short, often over-booked appointment slots, but taking two minutes to discuss reliable health information with your patients has great potential for improving patient care and decreasing un-needed visits and calls.
  • Prep: Have pre-written, condition-specific information for your patients and include curated links to additional reliable information for those who may want it. It’s as simple as a “dot-phrase” on most major EMR systems or a copy/paste file you can quickly email or print.
  • Encourage: Encourage your patients to take control of their health by being informed. Encourage them to ask questions and explain things back to you, so you’re certain they have a grasp on it. Encourage them to share what they’ve learned in their searches.

    Danielle Jones, MD is a a fellow of The American Resident Project, where this post first appeared. Danielle  went to college at Texas A&M University (Gig ‘Em Aggies!) and completed her medical school at Texas Tech. Dr. Jones is interested in fertility medicine, social media and health technology. Currently, Dr. Jones is an Ob/Gyn resident in Texas, where she lives with her husband, twin baby girls and three crazy dogs

Why Do We Trust Doctors?

The National Journal has released a Special Report. The Report features a series of  four articles: Restoration Calls – Fixing America’s Crumbling Foundation. Among these articles is: “Why Do We Trust Doctors?”  It contains results of a Gallup poll, showing trust in doctors is at all-time high of 70% over the last ten years.

This is intriguing considering numerous media articles on physician personal profiteering and physician partnerships in technologies such as imaging equipment  for financial gain.

The article begins, ”We’re cynics about insurance companies and critics of big health companies.  So why do we still believe in physicians?”

Why indeed?  The author of the April 26 piece, Margot Sanger-Katz, tells the story of 60 year old Mary Morse-Dwelley of Maine who has undergone 22 operations to close an abdominal incision and who has had her gallbladder, uterus, and 2 feet of intestine removed.  She has spent two years in bed. Despite this long surgical ordeal, she implicitly trusts her surgeon. So does the American public, if you believe Gallup.

When patients are asked why they trust doctors, patients say they see doctors as someone who is trying their best to help them. They do not see them as agents of government, insurance companies, or institutions. They trust the interpersonal face-to-face relationship and the motives of their doctors.

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The Digital Age and the Doctor/Patient Relationship

The digital age has had a deep and likely permanent effect on the patient-physician relationship. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had physicians beg me to provide them with a way to stop their patients from Googling their symptoms and diagnosing themselves before their first office visit and much to their chagrin, my answer is always the same, “You can’t stop them. Get over it.”

The internet acts as an enormous and easily accessible virtual research library for patients, granting them access on the one hand to quality, data-driven information and personal perspectives that can provide tremendous value and on the other hand to information that is no better than old-fashioned quackery.

But this access to information has not translated into improved interactions between patients and their physicians. It is clear to me that we all need help in rethinking how we can best work together, especially because I believe that we are still in the nascent stages of this age of disruptive new tools that delight some and threaten others. Time and time again I hear stories describing the ways in which this technology seems to be moving us backward instead of ahead:

· When Timothy B. Lee went to a dentist highly recommended on Yelp, he was asked to sign a “mutual privacy agreement” that would transfer ownership of any public commentary he might make in the future to the dentist.

· A TechDirt blog post reported that plastic surgeons have sued patients for their online negative reviews and a neurologist sued the son of a stroke victim for negative comments about the physician’s bedside manner.

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