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Physicians Weigh In: How Online Medical Info Has Changed Family Practice

11/08/18 The Manual's Staff

Business is booming for “Dr. Google,” and it’s leading to a lot of referrals.

That’s according to the findings of a Merck Manuals survey of 240 family physicians conducted at a recent industry conference. We spoke with attendees about how the availability of medical information online in recent years has changed patient and physician behaviors in real life. We found that many docs believe more online medical information has led to more patient interactions. Eighty two percent of family doctors say patients are contacting their office or nurse’s line with medical questions more frequently, and 60 percent say it’s increased the number of in-person patient visits.

But not all medical resources are created equal, and not all patients are well-informed when they visit their doctors. Nearly all – 97 percent – of physicians surveyed said patients are coming into the office with misinformation based on something they read online.

“It’s a double-edged sword for patients and providers,” said Robert S. Porter, MD, Editor-in-Chief of The Merck Manuals. “As patients seek answers to their questions online, it’s all too easy to be misled by sources that are not medically correct. That can have a significant impact on how patients approach appointments and what they expect from interactions with their physicians.”

More Complicated Patient Visits

As one doctor we surveyed pointed out, patients researching their symptoms online tend to gravitate toward the scariest diagnosis.

“In some ways, it’s made appointments more complicated,” said Timothy, a family physician from Anchorage, Alaska. “Patients search their symptoms online and see the worst-case scenarios, rather than the most common scenarios, so they come into appointments with more anxiety.”

This anxiety can manifest in a number of ways during appointments, including causing patients to doubt their physicians. Nearly 80 percent of doctors surveyed said patients are more likely to question their diagnoses or recommendations based on what they read online.

In other instances, online information may actually keep patients from calling their doctor. While a majority of family physicians surveyed said online medical information has increased the frequency of patient visits, 29 percent said patients come in less frequently because they read about symptoms and treatment online. Some of those patients may be consulting credible sources and making smart decisions in lieu of making an appointment. But it’s hard to argue that fewer interactions with healthcare professionals will lead to better patient outcomes system-wide.

Physicians Have a Critical Role to Play

The challenge of overcoming patient misconceptions and misunderstandings is nothing new. Old wives’ tales, personal anecdotes and misleading advertisements have been barriers to accurate medical knowledge for decades. Yet the explosion of medical information online has taken these challenges to a whole new level.

Today, people can swap stories with fellow patients around the world via social media and read up on their symptoms on their phones while sitting in the waiting room. Physicians are facing a new reality in which many patients conduct extensive online research before consulting medical professionals about health concerns – for better or for worse.

“We run into problems when patients go to online sources that aren’t evidence-based medicine,” said Kyhati, a physician from Dixon, Illinois. “But patients aren’t going to stop looking up their symptoms on the Internet, so it’s up to physicians to direct them to trusted sources.”

Arming Patients with the Right Tools

The Merck Manuals’ long history and mission is rooted in facilitating more effective interactions between patients and physicians. Our website and mobile apps deliver credible information for healthcare professionals and patients, ensuring access to accurate, accessible and usable information that matches the reader’s knowledge level and need.

In addition to providing this information in 10 languages free of charge and with no registration requirement, we’ve also developed a framework to empower patients to better evaluate the sources of medical information they’re accessing online. Our easy-to-remember device makes it simple to see where a medical website STANDS:

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?

As physicians continue to adapt to a world where Dr. Google is the first touch point for many patients, it’s critical to guide patients toward the right resources. The Merck Manuals is committed to helping physicians in this critical effort.