Online Research vs. Physician Guidance: Are Patients Turning to the Internet Even More?

We’ve all heard of “Dr. Google” and the associated pros and cons of patients turning to search engines for answers to medical questions. While informed, empowered patients can be more engaged in their care, bad information from the internet and potentially incorrect self-diagnoses pose risks to patient safety. But did you know that, in addition to researching symptoms and health concerns ahead of seeking care, patients are also turning to Google following medical appointments or in lieu of disclosing information to their doctors altogether?

Two articles about these tendencies recently caught our eye, partly because they emphasize the value of clear, open and ongoing two-way communication between patients and physicians. However, these stories also feel important because they point to a critical opportunity for physicians: to be even more proactive in their conversations with patients, specifically around ensuring patient comprehension and building trust.

Patients are leaving appointments with questions

Citing a recent patient survey, Fierce Healthcare reports some surprising findings, including:

  • “The majority of Americans don’t fully understand the information their provider tells them…. 11% of Americans not in a caregiver role leave [medical appointments] more confused than they were before the appointment.”
  • “Three in four Americans leave the doctor confused and dissatisfied for reasons that include disappointment in the level of Q&A they have with their doctor.”
  • “This communication breakdown prompts many patients and caregivers to turn to other resources, like going online, to fill in the holes and take their health management into their own hands.”
  • “Nearly nine in 10 Americans feel confident in the information they find on the internet, and a third feel they learn more there than from their doctor.”

In addition, says Fierce Healthcare, “Nearly one in four Americans also do not feel comfortable asking their doctor certain health questions,” which can lead to withholding health information from their physicians (including cannabis use, as noted below).

Patients aren’t notifying physicians about cannabis use

As reported by healio, a survey of breast cancer patients recently revealed a “major blind spot in  [physicians’] ability to provide optimal care.” Several stats cited by the article point to the need for physicians to initiate conversations about cannabis with patients:

  • “More than 40% of patients with breast cancer reported using cannabis to manage their treatment symptoms, yet most patients did not discuss cannabis use with a physician.”
  • “Only 39% of respondents discussed cannabis with any of their physicians and 76% of these conversations were initiated by the patient.”
  • “50% of all respondents had sought information on medical cannabis, [but] few respondents reported clinicians as valuable sources.”
  • “Only 5% of respondents received recommendations from a physician, nurse practitioner or physician assistant…. [Instead,] most who obtained medical cannabis from a dispensary received recommendations from budtenders, managers or pharmacists.”

The research points to room for candid conversations about cannabis use – even outside oncology practices – to minimize “risk of potential adverse effects, treatment interactions or non-adherence to standard treatments.”

How to increase reliance on physician guidance

Both articles reflect opportunities to build trust in the doctor-patient relationship and to emphasize the value of guidance from a physician that knows the patient personally and is invested in their health.

To help you be proactive with your efforts (like patient engagement and patient education, including addressing limited health literacy), MLMIC has published these Risk Management Tips: