Dr Google can help patients talk to their doctors

As technology continues to infiltrate all aspects of our lives, a growing number of patients are turning to the internet for answers to their health concerns.

A survey administered to 400 patients who presented to Emergency Departments at St Vincent’s and Austin Health has found that half of participants regularly use the internet for health information, and that one in three searched for information on the problem for which they had presented to emergency.

St Vincent’s researchers who led the study, from left, Rachel Zordan, Dr Anthony Cocco and Dr Jennie Hutton
St Vincent’s researchers who led the study: Rachel Zordan, Dr Anthony Cocco and Dr Jennie Hutton

However, far from being a bad idea, the group of St Vincent’s researchers that conducted the study have discovered that for most patients, searching for symptoms online before presenting to Emergency improves interactions with their treating doctor. These findings have been published in the Medical Journal of Australia this week.

‘The perception might have been that Internet searching by patients does not help them,’ says  St Vincent’s Emergency Physician Dr Jennie Hutton. However it was found that searching for online health information had a positive impact on the doctor-patient relationship, particularly for patients with greater e-health literacy.

‘We found that searching online was unlikely to cause patients to doubt the diagnosis by a practitioner or to affect adherence to treatment,’ says St Vincent’s intern Dr Anthony Cocco. ‘We therefore suggest that doctors acknowledge and be prepared to discuss with patients the results of their online searches.’

Patients who have previously googled their symptoms are unlikely to veer from the treatment prescribed by their doctor. Nine out of ten had never or rarely changed a treatment plan advised by a doctor because of what they had read on the Internet.

However, Dr Google isn’t without its setbacks. 40% agreed or strongly agreed that gathering information from the Internet made them worried or anxious.

‘Patients have a vested interest in their own wellbeing, and they are going to spend  time doing their own research, which creates background information that we can then build on,’ says Dr Hutton. ‘We recommend that patients go to clinically appropriate websites, such as the Better Health Channel and that clinicians should be aware of it, especially with younger adults.’

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