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Online Medical Advice: The New Prescription of Choice

Posted Nov 03 2008 9:02pm

The Internet seems to be turning everyone into pseudo-medical experts, as a matter of necessity as much as anything else. Physicians are busier than ever and the patients’ face-to-face time with them is progressively shrinking. It makes sense, therefore, to do some research online and then go to the physician’s office armed with a list of specific questions in order to make the best of that limited time.

Recently, I had an appointment with my physician. The nurse (or nursing assistant?) who was taking me through the pre-see-the-doctor process asked the usual questions: “Any changes since your last visit? Any new medications? Any complaints?”

I answered, “No” to all of those questions but then made an off-hand reference to having checked out something on the Internet. The nurse groaned, albeit with a smile on her face, and said, “Oh—the Internet!”

The short of it is that she feels her job is complicated by patients who pour over the Internet and then arrive for their appointments loaded with questions that require too much time to answer, or that she can’t answer. I should have asked the physician if he agreed, but didn’t think of it. No time—I had other questions.

I am sure that some aggravation can be a part of the interaction with the Internet-prepared patient but, in general, I think knowledge is power and, as health care consumers, we all can stand to possess a little power. I also see research on the part of the patient as improving efficiency and time management, in most cases.

Often patients who are dealing with dire diagnoses will scan the Internet trying to ferret out an obscure breakthrough medical study or a cure. While online searches may not reveal the miracle they were seeking, they can lead to physicians who can provide even more information.

Like it or not, we need to accept that patients will be turning increasingly to the Internet for medical information. In the wise words of Dr. Shalom Kalnicki, chairman of oncology radiation at Montefiore-Einstein Cancer Center, “It is important that instead of fighting against it, we join with them and become their coaches in the process.”

Have your patients’ Internet medical searches been a help or a hindrance in your experience?

Tell me about it.

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