As a practicing physician, you’ve probably encountered this scenario before: a patient comes to you with symptoms of a minor ailment, and is convinced, thanks to self-diagnosis, that he or she has a rare, life-threatening disease. How did they come to this conclusion? They learned it from their friend, “Doctor Google.”
Because nearly everyone has access to the internet, it’s inevitable that the majority of patients will turn to the web to research their symptoms. According to a report released by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, one in three Americans will use the internet to research a medical condition. What was once only available through scouring books or talking with a physician, is now easily obtainable with just a few clicks of a mouse.
Having patients google symptoms can be a good thing because it can help them better express what they’re experiencing or identify unusual diagnoses that could have otherwise remained under the radar. However, they’re also more likely to create unnecessary panic rather than achieve a correct diagnosis. This state of medical anxiety is what is referred to as “cyberchondria,” and it’s a growing concern among many healthcare providers.
So what can you, as a physician, do to help a patient experiencing cyberchondria?
- Carefully listen to your patient and address their concerns respectfully without being dismissive.
- Create a feeling of trust and understanding by maintaining open communication with your patients and discussing possible cause for their symptoms – of course, using your expertise but also keeping his or her concerns in mind.
- Instead of discouraging them from using the web for medical information, advise them to use credible sources and stick to websites ending in .gov or .edu. For example, healthfinder.gov and medlineplus.gov are both considered credible by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) and a good place for patients to begin their research. CAPHIS is also a great place for patients to turn to for reliable health advice. CAPHIS is part of the Medical Library Association, an association of health information professionals with more than 5,000 individual and institution members. By visiting http://caphis.mlanet.org/consumer/index.html they can access a full list of credible medical websites they can trust.
By keeping these tips in mind, you’ll develop a trusting relationship with your patient, while also allowing them to remain empowered and in more control of their own health.