When your patient asked Dr. Google: How to work with an internet ‘expert’

By Jules Murtha | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published May 9, 2022

Key Takeaways

  • Advances in technology have led patients to regularly seek health information—as well as self-diagnose—online.

  • Instead of shying away from patients’ online-gained health information, clinicians can use it to fuel discussion and answer their questions.

  • Through patient-centered communication, clinicians can increase patient trust and generate better health outcomes.

As the internet becomes our prominent information source, a growing number of patients are seeking health information online—and, in turn, self-diagnosing.

Patients who put their faith in “Dr. Google,” however, may be relying on inaccurate or misleading information that doctors must counter in the office.

Physicians can work with such patients by:

  • Building trust through patient-centered communication

  • Reinforcing the importance of credible sources, and

  • Using the patient’s knowledge to expand the conversation to achieve better health outcomes.

Use patient-centered communication to build trust

When patients decide to seek health information, whether online or from health professionals, they base their decision on sources they trust.

According to a study published by PLOS ONE, doctors can build patient trust by practicing patient-centered communication (PCC).[] PCC focuses on shared decision-making between you and your patients, and your ability to explain the next steps in their care.

Physicians who practice PCC address patients’ uncertainty, and make time for them to ask clarifying questions. Also, an after-visit summary can enforce their understanding.

Using PCC methods, you can cultivate trusting relationships with your patients, who are more likely to take your word over internet information.

Practice RESPECT

A simple way to refine your patient communication skills is to adhere to the set of principles embodied in the AMA’s acronym RESPECT.[]

  • Rapport. Your physical appearance, commitment to eye contact and active listening, and use of the patient’s name in conversation can contribute to a secure patient relationship.

  • Explain. Ask patients clarifying questions that prompt them to explain their concerns. Questions such as “What’s important to you?” should be at the top of the list.

  • Show. You’re bound to give patients constructive criticism at some point. Frame this in a collaborative way to connect with them. Provide educational resources, and compliment them on their progress to demonstrate support.

  • Practice. Use your communication tool kit with patients as often as possible. Don’t shy away from their criticisms, and address any roadblocks you encounter.

  • Empathy. Through verbal and non-verbal cues, show patients you aren’t there to judge—only to serve.

  • Collaboration. Become a partner with your patient. Explain your recommendations, and identify any barriers that may keep them from positively interacting with you.

  • Technology. Communicate with patients through no more than three virtual platforms, and keep conversations as professional as possible.

Guide patients in their research pursuits

Along with improving your communication skills, you can participate in your patients’ research endeavors.

Results of the PLOS ONE study showed that physicians who engage in better communication with patients can help them navigate the seemingly infinite number of sources on the web.

Help patients locate quality information and spare them the effort of weeding through anecdotal experience, professional information, and biased content.

Make no mistake: Anchoring patients’ research this way will rarely lead them to turn to the internet as their primary health consultant. Instead, your ability to develop a dynamic partnership with patients and their quest for online health information will ultimately serve them better.

Make the most of patients’ foundational knowledge

You’ve built trust with patients through PCC and RESPECT, and pointed them to quality internet sources. But they’re still coming into the office with information that you could have offered. Now what?

As it turns out, patients who present quality health information from the internet aren’t always out to challenge your expertise—in fact, they often use online health information to maximize their time with you.

A study published by BMC Medical Informatics and Decision Making found that patients often consult the internet to cultivate greater awareness of their own condition.[]

Upon gathering information about their signs and symptoms, some patients feel prepared to engage in more meaningful discourse when it’s time to enter the exam room.

Patients who do their research are therefore in a better position to ask you pertinent questions, which paves the way for a more focused, productive appointment.

What this means for you

The internet offers access to a wealth of health information, so patients may consult Google before you. When interacting with internet-informed patients, build trust by using patient-centered communication practices. Remind patients to exercise caution when surfing the web for health information, as it’s riddled with misinformation. Remember that not all patients who seek health information online will challenge your authority. Use their knowledge to build on the conversation and foster shared decision-making.

Related: Has AI lived up to its promise for healthcare?

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