It’s a well-known fact that patients search the internet for two key reasons; firstly for self-diagnosis, and secondly to find out more about what their physician has told them might be wrong with them. There is so much information online relating to health care that it can be confusing and overwhelming for patients, and in some cases, the sources they may refer to will be unreliable, outdated or misleading. As a medical professional you have a responsibility to guide your patients to the best sources of information to ensure they are well-informed and can participate fully in their treatment.
Anyone with a health problem can search for their symptoms on the internet and will then be faced with an array of possible causes for their ailment. Without medical expertise, it can be very hard for people to assess their condition and they can often be frightened by what they read and convinced they have something seriously wrong with them. By the time they visit their doctor, they will be worried and distressed when in all likelihood their symptoms will not be signs of terminal disease but of something benign and easily treatable. It’s important to listen carefully to what your patient is saying and read anything they have printed out to show you. Don’t dismiss their fears, or patronize them. Yes, you are the expert, but by showing them you are taking their concerns seriously you will reassure them, and they are more likely to have confidence in your diagnosis.
When you tell a patient what you suspect may be wrong with them, you will usually prescribe a course of treatment or refer them for further tests to make a more definitive diagnosis. At this point, it is advisable to direct them towards good, evidence-based websites that will provide reliable information in a manner that is easily comprehended. You may have informational leaflets that you can give patients about particular conditions or to inform them about any tests they need to undergo, but you can be sure they will be Googling for more details when they get home. By directing them to approved websites, you can help them find the best sources of information and ease the stress and worry of their being faced with multiple resources that they are not able to critically assess.
What sources should you recommend?
Use sources that are authoritative and evidence-based, starting with those that reflect your own country’s healthcare system. It’s preferable to direct someone to a national website to ensure the treatment options listed are available to them. In addition, you can recommend internationally recognized websites such as Patient or MedlinePlus, which have extensive coverage and detailed, appropriately written information. Your patients may also like to read reviews of treatments and medical devices that may be recommended to them, in which case they can be directed to a site such as ReviewYT.com.
Be prepared for your patients’ desires to find out more about their condition and treatment, and have appropriate, trustworthy sources ready to refer them to. If they have been scared by a poor-quality website, point out why the information can’t be trusted and steer them towards a source that will give them the best quality information available.