Survey reveals the benefits and downside of online medical information

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A survey of 240 family physicians finds patient engagement is increasing as patients read about symptoms and treatments online.

The survey found that doctors’ patients are more likely to question their diagnosis. However, the research found that nearly all of the patients are coming in the office with misinformation.

Merck Manuals, a publishing firm and part of biopharmaceutical company Merck, conducted the survey in October during a national conference.

The survey found that many doctors believe that patient use of online medical information has led to more patient interactions. More than 80 percent of family physicians noted that patients are calling the office more frequently with medical questions, which has resulted in 60 percent saying the number of in-patient visits has increased.

“It’s a double-edge sword for patients and providers,” says Robert Porter, MD, editor in chief of Merck Manuals. “As patients seek answers to their questions online, it’s all too easy to be misled by sources that are not medically correct. That can have a significant impact on how patients approach appointments and what they expect from interactions with their physicians.”

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One surveyed doctor noted that patients who researched symptoms tended to gravitate toward the worse diagnosis, which makes appointments more complicated as patients come in with higher anxiety levels that can cause them to doubt the physician based on information they’ve read online.

On the flip side, however, 29 percent of physicians say patients who read online visit less frequently. One of the physicians worried that can cause problems when patients go to online sources that are not steeped in evidence-based medicine. “But patients aren’t going to stop looking up their symptoms on the Internet, so it’s up to physicians to direct them to trusted sources,” the doctor added.

Patients aren’t the only users of digital tools and online websites, as a lot of doctors read the same or similar content, surveyed physicians acknowledge. More than 80 percent regularly confirm treatments or diagnoses using an online resource and 89 percent say regular access to online information makes them more confident during patient interactions.

To fight misinformation, Merck offers an information credibility test called the STANDS method to enable patients to assess the reliability of a medical website. It asks six questions that patients should consider when choosing what medical information to read:

Does the resource cite recognized authorities and provide their credentials?

Is it open and obvious whether the site’s mission is educational or commercial?

Is the site available without registration and is there a way for users to contact someone with questions or concerns?

Is the information available purely as a resource or does the site benefit financially from what its users do, such as buying products or visiting advertised websites?

Is the site updated when needed by recognized authorities?

Can users access content without forfeiting personal information?

More information on the survey is available here.

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