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How Physicians Can Guide Patients to Use the Internet


Used correctly, the Internet is a great health resource for your patients. But it’s a physician’s job to guide patients on how to use it.

In talking to physicians, it seems that the verdict is still out about “Googling” medical symptoms, or using the Internet to get information about a medical condition.

On the one hand, there are lots of great, physician-created online resources that can provide helpful information to patients suffering from various ailments and conditions. On the other hand, there is a lot of bogus, misleading, or panic-inducing information on the Internet that can do more harm than good to an ailing patient or hypochondriac.

Or, as family medicine physician J. Scott Litton puts it: “Googling symptoms can sometimes be helpful, but the patients are likely to get themselves too excited or worked up regarding the information.”

Mike Ross, chief medical officer NaviNet and former practice-based pediatrician, told Physicians Practice that many physicians are frustrated with patients who challenge authority or who look at outdated information from non-credible sources.

But regardless of how a physician feels about this behavior, patients are going to do it anyway. And they’ll do it more and more in the coming years thanks to all the private and public initiatives to get patients to take greater charge of their own healthcare.

Used correctly, the Internet is a great resource for your patients. And it’s a physician’s job to guide patients on how to use, but not misuse, it. So how should physicians go about recommending their patients do this? One way physicians can help patients is by making sure their practice’s website contains links to credible medical-information websites. “We have the obligation to help patients understand that some sites are more credible than others,” said Ross, adding that credible sites may include government-sponsored sites or university-sponsored sites. “Those tend to be higher quality sources of information.”

Physician Joseph Kim also suggested physicians direct patients to moderated online forums where patients have virtual discussions that are reviewed and moderated by a group of healthcare professionals. One example is HealthTap, a free online service for patients that offers answers to common questions by physicians.

Dean Heller, Miami-based cardiologist and president of VideoMD, a medical-video-sharing site, recalls lecturing on this subject, starting his talk by presenting a cartoon of a guy sitting on an exam table with the doctor next to him, holding a laptop and saying something to the effect of: "wait a second doc, I am getting a second opinion.”

“I tell doctors, you should try and direct what they look for as much as possible,” Heller told Physicians Practice. “I strongly recommend to doctors find the information for patients, and compile links to send patients, either by e-mail, or on a website, or of course they can put together a profile of videos on VideoMD for the patients to look at.”

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