Docs can use the Internet safely

February 25, 2010

There is a trend on the Internet: more and more people are going online for health information. As reported by Reuters two weeks ago, more than half of Americans turned to the Internet for health information. While 51 percent used the Internet for health information, only 5 percent used e-mail as a method to communicate with their doctors.

There is a trend on the Internet: more and more people are going online for health information. As reported by Reuters two weeks ago, more than half of Americans turned to the Internet for health information. While 51 percent used the Internet for health information, only 5 percent used e-mail as a method to communicate with their doctors.

Meanwhile, doctors continue to avoid use of the Internet, including medical blogging, publishing, Twitter, Facebook, email, etc.?

Clearly our patients have migrated to the Internet and there's nothing we can do about it. But maybe the migration can be beneficial, and there may be parts of the Internet we physicians can actually embrace instead of discounting the entire medium as a whole. Maybe we can meet them there.

Many docs cite the legal uncertainty about giving health advice over a blog, Web site, or email. There is tremendous fear of medical liability when a doc gives an opinion, in the office or otherwise.

I am sympathetic, but I remain steadfast that we should be producing reliable health information on the Internet. We have a moral responsibility to make credible information available to the public and to our patients. I am not crazy, but consider this carefully. There is no reason why docs shouldn't be using the Internet to provide good health information on the Web. It is safe.

Let me explain. Fifty-one percent of Americans turned to the Internet, but fewer even queried their doctor in the form of an e-mail. Why?

Patients are out there looking for information. They are not out there looking for medical advice. There is a huge difference.

There is a difference between looking for the top 10 reasons of a sore throat versus looking for advice on how to treat your own sore throat.

In the same way, what is the liability to listing factual information about the 10 most common causes of sore throat? You are listing facts. You are not offering your opinion. There is no medical advice transmitted. So, you are safe.

Remember how we get into trouble. We have liability issues when we offer bad advice. Not bad information, but when we make a bad decision. Offering advice over the Internet is a bad decision, but offering information is not.

Allow me to beat a dead horse. There is something we are forgetting about ourselves. We are figures of authority. The authority comes from our own use of the information we have accumulated over the years and melding it with our experience. It's called clinical acumen. It will keep docs safe in their ivory towers. It will not socialize anything.

The Internet lacks health information, and we can change that. The Internet is not asking for our clinical judgment. There is a difference. It is our clinical acumen that will keep us ultimately separate and distinct from the Internet.

Now, get writing.