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Doctors Really Want Well-Informed Patients

I met a patient today in the emergency department and had what is becoming a common interaction. Despite feeling quite ill, the woman had taken the time to prepare for her visit. When I first spoke with her, she enumerated her symptoms and how frequently she had suffered them. Then she reached into her purse, pulled out a stack of printed pages derived from several medical Internet sites – all of them names you would recognize. The pages covered her specific symptoms, a wide range of possible conditions, and a myriad of treatments. Some of the information was good, and some of it was not so good. But, the information was better than it would have been a year ago, or even six months ago.

This patient’s preparedness pointed out to me how well-informed many consumers are becoming as they attempt to manage own health. The fact that she may have been influenced by some misinformation merely underscores how much responsibility there is for information quality control, and how much of the assurance process is being delegated by default to the individual patients.

My take on this is that certain aspects of healthcare are increasingly shifting to self-care. Between the increased strain on healthcare resources (when was the last time that a doctor in a busy practice could expect to spend more than ten minutes with a patient) and increase in specialization, patients are forced to encounter numerous clinicians and coordinate their responses, in effect becoming navigators of the health care system.

Rather than resent it, I appreciate it when a patient is well informed, particularly if they have the ability to understand some of the basics of disease and disease management. The Internet has vastly changed the landscape of possibilities for understanding and confusion. The sheer quantity of health information that is easily and rapidly available to consumers via the Internet is staggering, and far exceeds what was formerly available to trained medical professionals.

If the reader is not overwhelmed and can apply practical filters to what is presented, then he or she becomes an educated patient. An educated patient makes smarter decisions and tends to be a strong partner in the treatment decision process.

The caveat is that every patient must recognize his or her limitations, and not attempt to self-treat beyond prudent boundaries, which will be determined over time. Of course, if one acts on incorrect information, that is a formula for failure, or worse. But what about good information? The downside of the increasing ubiquity of information occurs when any patient becomes overly convinced of particular facts of his or her diagnosis or treatment in the absence of proper clinical oversight.

I’ve heard colleagues tell stories of patients that were so completely convinced of a self-diagnosis based on articles they read online that they ended up opting not to pursue the treatment path recommended by their providers.  These patients inevitably ended up back in the doctors’ offices, having lost precious time. What this points out is that doctors have the greatest advantage to put everything in context. My advice is simply to be cautious. Even if the source is a trusted medical encyclopedia, “good information” misunderstood or misapplied can slow down the process. The goal is to apply superb information to make a layperson better informed, not overconfident.

As far as getting reliable information into a patient’s hands, in my relationship with Healthline Networks, I’ve advised on and reviewed Healthline Treatment Search, a product that creates customized, medically-guided pathways to inform and empower consumers on important health decisions. Whereas most treatment information is embedded deep within articles on health websites, Healthline Treatment Search surfaces a semantically-generated, stand-alone list of possible treatment options for diseases and conditions. The current release covers nearly 1000 health conditions, and includes 4,500 treatment options and 1,200 over-the-counter and prescription medications, with content from ADAM, Cerner Multum, Gale Cengage, Natural Standard, and others. It is Healthline’s policy that feedback from users, both consumer and professional, will allow their experience and observations to improve the product.

Not everyone is in agreement that the Internet is the best place for a consumer to begin his or her search to diagnosis or for treatment. But I would doubt whether this trend will be curtailed, because as the tools improve, we are witnessing increased demand for information. No other information source with the breadth and reach of the Internet looms on the horizon.

What do you think? If not with information from the Internet, how might we as professionals help empower consumers as they take control of their healthcare decisions? Perhaps another way would be to truly empower practitioners to use the Internet and electronic medical records for decision support, for we are also in need of assistance. Let me know.

*This post, Doctors Really Want Well-Informed Patients, was originally published on by Paul S. Auerbach, MD, MS.*

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