By Jennifer Larson, contributor Feb 05, 2019
Everyone has done it at some point—asked Google (or another search
engine) for an answer to a question. Maybe you were searching for a restaurant
review, the address for a hotel, or some information about that weird noise
your car keeps making.
But it’s more serious when your patients start “Googling” symptoms and
searching for information about healthcare conditions or treatments. They run
the risk of finding incorrect information that could actually be harmful to
A survey released by Merck Manuals in November 2018 revealed that most physicians
are well aware of this conundrum. Of the 240 family physicians surveyed, a
whopping 97 percent reported that patients have come into their offices with
misinformation—some of which they’ve found online. The report also noted that almost 80 percent of
the doctors surveyed believe patients are more likely to question their
recommendations or diagnoses because of the availability of online medical
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How often do your patients turn
How often do patients walk into your office and admit they’ve searched
for some health information online before they arrived?
“It literally happens all the time,” said Devon Carr, MD, a primary
care and sports medicine physician with the Reddy Medical Group in Athens,
These are often patients with a new health concern, just trying to
learn as much as they can about the problem that looms large in their mind. They’re
worried, and they’re trying to get a handle on that.
Issam Halaby, MD, PhD, a general and vascular surgeon in Venice,
Florida, estimates that he encounters about five patients (out of about 70) in
a typical week who admit they’ve gone online and searched for information.
“I am not sure how many have done so but not informed me,” he added.
Don’t ignore their concerns
You may be tempted to brush off a patient’s questions or concerns that developed
after Googling their symptoms and researching various health blogs and medical
sites. But don’t. Your reaction matters.
“The worst thing healthcare practitioners can do is dismiss the
concerns of a patient, especially when those concerns stem from their own work
to understand their condition,” said Phil Marshall, MD, MPH, co-founder of Conversa
Health, which develops tools to improve healthcare communication.
Consider it this way: the patient cares enough about his or her health
to do some reading about it, he noted.
“Acknowledge their concerns because that’s why they’re coming to you,”
said Carr. “And I think it’s important to teach them about the information on
the internet and talk to them about reputable websites.”
That’s a big key: education. It can be time-consuming, yes. But it’s worthwhile
to explain how and where to find solid, reliable health information online,
rather than just advising patients to stay away from online searches altogether.
Carr tends to steer patients to websites operated by organizations such
as the Mayo Clinic and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Halaby
likes to refer patients to websites that are hosted by academic institutions or
various national societies, like the American Heart Association, the American Cancer
Society, or the American College of Surgeons. The American Academy of Family
Physicians (AAFP) has also published some guidance
on steering patients toward reliable health information online that
you may want to consult.
“Patients are just trying to inform themselves. You want to encourage
them to do it the right way,” said Carr. “Or they’re going to do it and not
It’s going to happen, agreed Halaby.
“My advice to my colleagues who have a negative reaction to patients
seeking information online is that it is unreasonable to expect patients in
2019 to not seek widely available information and to accept this behavior as
normal in current times,” he said, recommending that physicians accept the
patient’s efforts as “well meaning” and build on their efforts.
Just be ready for it, said Marshall. Be ready to consider their points
and explain your own rationale for your decisions so they better understand it.
“You address their specific points and concerns, and you welcome any
ideas they have that might differ from your own,” he suggested. “And if your
treatment approach seems to be at odds with theirs, help them understand why,
and in the end, if they wish to get another opinion, they are welcome to do
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