There are several “down” sides to patients’ heavy use of healthcare information gleaned from the Internet, including misinformation, the tendency toward self-diagnosis or self-treatment, request for additional treatments of medications during appointments, increased seeking of second opinions, and diminishing of satisfaction and trust in their physician’s approach, if it differs with the results of their own independent Internet searches.1 It might even be said that for some patients, Google is the “first opinion” and their own physician is the “second opinion.”
To shed light on approaches to communication with patients regarding their use of the Internet, MPR interviewed James A. Ellzy, MD, a family physician in Washington, DC, and a member of the board of directors of the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP).
How do you perceive the role of the Internet in modern-day life?
This is the information age, where almost everyone has access to the Internet. This applies not only to medicine but also to other fields; law, accounting, gardening, and just about every other profession. People are also expected to be more self-sufficient and to use the Internet themselves for professional services that used to be provided by others in the past. For example, people used to book cruises or air travel through a travel agent, and now we do it on our own, with information at our fingertips that was once reserved only for a select few in a given industry. We have all had to adjust to this rapidly changing reality.
Do you have patients who use the Internet for medical information prior to coming to see you?
I have many patients who have done research online. In fact, I assume they have looked up their condition before they came in, especially if they have had symptoms for several days or longer. Of course, if a person had an accident and ended up in the emergency department, chances are that neither they nor their family members have had the opportunity to research the condition. But for chronic or long-term conditions, it’s almost a given that they have consulted the Internet before consulting me.
Do you notice differences in the types of patients who use the Internet?
In my experience, initially it was the younger age group that was using the Internet, but it seems to be more equal now. In fact, elderly patients have more time to look things up on the Internet and also more medical problems going on.