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Doctors and Patients Both Have a Role to Play in Addressing Medical Misinformation Online

11/07/22 The Merck Manuals Editorial Staff

It’s hard to overstate the impact of online medical information in our healthcare landscape today. Patients around the globe have access to incredible amounts of medical resources. We turn to the internet for all kinds of medical intel—from searching for the most likely source of a new symptom to better understanding a recent diagnosis. Thanks to digital medical information resources, evolving guidelines, and emerging research, medical professionals have even more information at their fingertips too.

Online medical information is at a level of detail and access that would have been unthinkable just a generation or two ago. It empowers people to take charge of their own health and the health of their families in new and powerful ways. For more than a century, Merck Manuals has worked to serve as a leading source of medical knowledge for providers as well as patients, and our Global Medical Knowledge initiative recommits to these efforts in an increasingly connected and digital world.

Yet as online medical information has exploded, the Merck Manuals has identified key challenges in ensuring that information is accurate, reliable, and ultimately driving better health outcomes. One key focus area is a growing divide between doctors and patients in how they perceive the availability of medical information—and what patients are doing with it.

Two Studies Tell Very Different Stories

Merck Manuals recently completed two studies on the topic of online medical information focusing on how it’s perceived and used in the United States. The first study of 2,044 U.S. adults was conducted by Harris Poll on behalf of Merck Manuals. In a separate study, the Merck Manuals surveyed 263 physicians at the recent 2022 Family Medicine Experience (FMX) hosted by the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP). The findings underscore a disconnect between how patients say they’re using medical information and what doctors are seeing.

For example, in the survey of Americans, just 20% say they self-diagnose conditions based on information they read online or on social media. Yet in the survey of physicians, more than 93% said they see patients calling or visiting with a self-diagnosis they’ve concluded from online information or social media. They state this is occurring even more often today than it was five years ago. In addition, seven in 10 doctors also said patients are coming into the office more frequently because they read about symptoms or treatments online. Comparatively only 20% of the general public say information they’ve found online has caused them to visit or call the doctor more than they normally would.

Merck Manuals spoke with family physician, Dr. Wendy R. from Rhode Island at the FMX conference who said, “I have patients who come into my office with printouts of pages from websites checking on my diagnosis. Or I have younger patients who will eventually tell me they saw something on TikTok and wanted to make sure they didn’t have that condition. Technology is supposed to help us, but in some cases, technology is making the doctors’ job harder when patients don’t know where to get accurate information.”

Medical Misinformation is a Growing Problem

These conflicting findings aren’t inherently a negative for health outcomes. If individuals are getting educated about their health and seeking out the right treatments, that’s a positive for patients and their families as well as healthcare professionals. The challenge lies in the varying levels of quality in online medical information. Indeed, both physicians and average Americans say medical misinformation is a problem. Forty-four percent (44%) of Americans say they believe there is more medical misinformation online and on social media than in previous years. While a staggering 98% of physicians agreed that there is somewhat, or significantly more, misinformation.

The findings point to a need throughout the healthcare industry to elevate reputable and accurate medical information while giving patients and providers the space and resources to identify medical misinformation. It’s no easy task—anyone who’s Googled a symptom knows decoding those findings into actionable medical guidance is easier said than done.

Patients and medical professionals both have a role to play. Patients and caregivers can take the essential, extra steps to consider whether their resource is reputable, and have open-minded conversations with their providers. Most patients are doing this; 71% of Americans shared that they would most likely use their doctors or healthcare providers as their main source of medical information.

For healthcare professionals, it’s important to remember that any effort to be proactive about a person’s health and medical care is a positive one. Empowering patients to better understand how to access and interpret the right sources of medical information can take time to during patient visits in the short-term, but it can pose significant long-term benefits to the treatment and the patient-provider relationship.

“We’ve all had that moment when we experience a new medical symptom—back pain, a sore throat—and we turn to the internet for information,” said Sandy Falk, M.D., Merck Manuals Editor-in-Chief. “The challenge for patients and their doctors is that there is so much health information online and on social media, but it can be difficult to know which sources are credible. Doctors often point patients towards resources that they know are reliable. The Merck Manuals is committed to giving physicians and the general public access to trustworthy medical information.”

Know Where a Medical Resource STANDS

One powerful tool physicians can point their patients to is a Global Medical Knowledge initiative developed by the Merck Manuals. Patients can consider and authenticate their resources with this acronym, called the STANDS Method:

  • Source: Does the resource cite recognized authorities and provide their credentials?
  • Transparency: Is it open and obvious whether the site’s mission is educational or commercial?
  • Accessibility: Is the site available without registration, and is there a way for users to contact someone with questions or concerns?
  • Neutrality: Is the information available purely as a resource, or does the site benefit financially from what its users do (such as buying products or visiting advertised websites)?
  • Documentation: Is the site updated when needed by recognized medical experts?
  • Security: Can users access content without forfeiting personal information?