Patient Access to Online Medical Resources: Collaboration or Catastrophe?

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Global information services company Wolters Kluwer recently published a white paper about the practice of patients using online resources and information to answer medical questions. Among data such as how often patients use the Internet to answer questions or concerns, and the likelihood of misdiagnoses, the white paper sought to determine how patients’ access to medical information online might inform their relationship with their doctors. Surprisingly, only 12% of physicians polled believed patient access to online information has impeded the quality of care they provide, and nearly nine in ten physicians believe improved online access to medical information has improved the quality of care at their practice.

Screen Shot 2013-07-02 at 6.51.58 PMSo, can access to medical publications and health information help close the knowledge gap (and potential power imbalance) between doctor and patient? When patients are able to collaborate with their doctor, as opposed to being passive recipients of information, are they more likely to be active participants in their own healthcare, or will patients end up opposing professional expertise? And how can patients trust the accuracy of what they’re reading?

Internet heavyweights like WebMD and Everyday Health see millions of visits per month, but their reliability has been challenged by some for connections to pharmaceutical companies and content written to drive user traffic. Sites like the NIH’s MedlinePlus and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention get higher marks from the medical community. Diagnostic tools like Symcat and Caracal are changing the landscape of self-diagnosis by providing not just the symptoms of a disease, but also the likelihood of getting it (important in a world where we’ve coined the term “cyberchondria”).

But, can a patient recognize that the Internet isn’t a substitute for years of medical education and experience in the field? And how do doctors manage unfounded patient anxiety brought about by poring over health and medical websites? A nurse practitioner based out of San Francisco General Hospital responded with the following about patient access to medical information: “Online sites are great at listing symptoms and outcomes, but they don’t explain to patients how crucial the other components of medical history, lab testing and a physical evaluation are in making a diagnosis. So it’s great that people are educated on diseases, it’s just usually not the disease they have.”

What has your experience been with patient access to healthcare information? Has it improved quality of care and increased collaboration, or led to anxious, ill-informed patients?

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Aubrie-Ann Jones is a student in the Master’s Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University. She holds an MFA in Fiction from The New School, and a BA in Anthropology from Fordham University. Aubrie is hoping to promote Narrative Medicine training in both medical schools and in the clinical environment after graduation, and to continue to explore the patient/clinician relationship, particularly in trauma care. She is a writer, traveler, advocate, teacher, and runner who is currently heading up Operations and Leadership & Development at a boutique executive search firm that builds teams for NYC-based tech startups. Twitter: @aaj1026