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How Can Medical Professionals Help Patients Navigate Medical Misinformation Online?

11/07/22 The Merck Manuals Editorial Staff

“Technology is supposed to help us, but in some cases, technology is making doctors’ job harder when patients don’t know where to get accurate information.”

That sentiment is from a physician at the recent 2022 Family Medicine Experience (FMX) hosted by the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP). The comment captures the struggle facing healthcare professionals today when it comes to online medical information. There’s more out there than ever before – but are doctors and patients on the same page about its role in informing patients about diagnosis and treatment? And does online medical information improve or detract from health outcomes?

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. Our websites have always been free, and the mobile apps have been available since 2014 for both clinicians and patients, to provide unbiased health care information.

To better understand the evolving role of online medical information – and misinformation – for patients and providers, The Manuals recently completed two studies on the topic.

The first study included 2,044 U.S. adults and was conducted by Harris Poll on behalf of Merck Manuals to gauge how Americans access and interpret medical information. In a separate study, the Merck Manuals surveyed 263 physicians at the 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.

Case in point: Just 20% of Americans said they self-diagnose conditions based on information they read online or on social media. Physicians have a very different perception. More than 93% of doctors at FMX said patients frequently call or visit with a self-diagnosis they’ve arrived at from online information or social media. The respondents stated this is occurring even more often today than it was five years ago.

The disconnect between the perception of patients and physicians extends to how medical information impacts office visits. Seven in 10 physicians said patients are coming into the office more frequently because they read about symptoms/treatments online. Comparatively, only 20% of the general public said information they’ve found online has caused them to visit or call the doctor more than they normally would.

More Medical Misinformation Than Ever

In our conversations with doctors at FMX, responses varied regarding the challenges and opportunities of the explosion of information, but one theme remained constant – not all online medical information is created equal, and there is a lot of misinformation. On this, physicians and patients agree in principle, but not about the proportion of credible information. Forty-four percent 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 report that there is somewhat, or significantly more, misinformation.

“Medical misinformation is not a new phenomenon, and doctors have always played a vital role in helping patients interpret and understand key details about their health,” said Sandy Falk, M.D., Merck Manuals Editor-in-Chief. “Today, however, online sources and social media means there is broader access and increased volume of information, so there is more medical misinformation than ever. As healthcare professionals, we need to create and utilize resources to ensure patients can better evaluate sources of medical knowledge and use that information to make well-informed decisions about their health.”

The Merck Manuals continuously works to provide trusted and up-to-date medical information. We believe that health information is a universal right and that every person is entitled to accurate and accessible medical information. We have a responsibility to protect, preserve, and share the best current medical information to enable more informed decisions, enhance relationships between patients and professionals, and improve health care outcomes around the world.

Physicians Must Play an Active Role

Most doctors recognize that any time patients are being proactive about understanding their health and making healthy choices, there’s an opportunity to improve outcomes. But far too many websites and social media accounts do not contribute to this goal. Some contain inaccurate or biased information, others are written at a professional level and may not be understandable for the general population. Still others play on patient fears as a way to earn more clicks or advertising revenue. Health misinformation creates friction in the doctor-patient relationship, with doctors often having to spend time dissuading a patient from a certain viewpoint or plan of action. In today’s reality of limited office visit times and the demands of working in electronic medical records systems and increased routes of communication with through patient portals and other tool, this distraction can be frustrating.

Yet like so many aspects of the doctor-patient dynamic, a more long-term, relationship-driven approach can pay dividends. That starts with fostering trust and looking beyond the specific medical information or source in question to a broader conversation around how patients can evaluate a source of information and interpret the information it presents.

To help patients in these efforts, Merck Manuals developed 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?

This method offers a starting point for a conversation and underscore that we all have to constantly evaluate the information we seek out. It’s a good reminder that medical information is more beneficial and impactful when combined with a conversation with a healthcare professional. Armed with this approach, physicians can give patients a framework for seeking medical information that will add to the relationship and drive better health outcomes.