How to compete with ‘Dr. Google’

By John Murphy, MDLinx
Published September 20, 2018

Key Takeaways

Dr. Google doesn’t need a waiting room, doesn’t require health insurance, and always makes house calls. So, it’s no wonder that 72% of US adult internet users reported they paid a visit to Dr. Google by searching for health information online, according to a 2013 survey (the most recent year available) by the Pew Research Center.

More than one-third did a web search specifically to self-diagnose their own or someone else’s medical condition. Of these, 35% didn’t follow up with a clinician for a professional opinion on the matter.

In a more recent study, researchers showed that search engine results have a significant effect on people’s ability to make good treatment choices. Finding incorrect information can be more harmful than having no information at all, they concluded.

Not surprisingly, many physicians don’t like when patients consult first with “Dr. Google.” But, like it or not, Dr. Google isn’t going anywhere. (Google even rolled out Google Symptom Search earlier this year in India.)

To that end, here’s some advice to help you compete against—or even join forces with—Dr. Google.

Tell patients to talk to you first

Do you give your email address to patients? Although there are pros and cons about doing so, one advantage is that patients can readily consult with you before going to Dr. Google, said family physician Eric Cadesky, MD, CM, Vancouver, BC, Canada, in a CBC News article.

“I find a lot of my patients will actually come to me first by email with questions or an early complaint,” Dr. Cadesky said.

Refer patients to reliable sources

“Needless to say, people shouldn’t expect a website to replace their physician,” wrote primary care physician David W. Wolpaw, MD, Manchester, CT, in the Hartford Courant. “I know next to nothing about auto mechanics, so I wouldn’t expect I could figure out what was wrong with my car through an internet search.”

Still, Dr. Wolpaw said he understands patients’ urge to use the internet to self-diagnose. And if patients really can’t resist that urge, he recommends sites such as WebMD.com or MayoClinic.org, which offer useful, understandable, and generally reliable information. He also suggests CDC.gov as another excellent resource on a variety of health topics, especially cancer prevention and vaccines.

Make Dr. Google work for you

Believe it or not, Dr. Google can bring you and your patient closer together. According to a review article on the subject, researchers found that openly discussing internet health findings can improve the physician-patient relationship. The authors concluded that, “enabling patients to communicate their internet research was one of the key mechanisms to ensure that patients’ opinion was valued and to enhance physicians’ relationships with their internet-informed patients.”

In particular, the physician-patient relationship benefits from internet health searches because these patients are more health literate and therefore better able to communicate with their clinicians, according to a recent study of patients presenting to emergency departments.

Dr. Wolpaw, for one, advises patients to print out any online information that causes them concern and bring the printouts into the visit. This way, the patient and the doctor can review these concerns together, he says.

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