Patients Should Educate Themselves! Except When They Shouldn’t?

Would anyone in the healthcare industry disagree that it is incredibly important, literally a matter of life or death, that patients take responsibility for their health, and actively participate in their treatment? Countless studies have shown that educated, engaged patients have better outcomes.

And then we have a physician such as this one banning her patients from googling health information: Here’s the summary of this doctor’s advice to patients:

photo credit:

photo credit:

Don’t Google symptoms. You will likely be lead astray because you are not a doctor yourself. You will ask for unnecessary tests and your doctor will have to spend a lot of time talking you out of them. Or conversely, you will unwisely decide not to bother going to the doctor. Instead of Googling symptoms, if you really want to be proactive, you should wait until you visit your doctor and then ask her to give you resources to study.

“While I am a strong believer in patient education and involvement, this trend is actually making it more difficult for physicians to guide their patients appropriately.”

Her heart is surely in the right place … she’s had patients show up shaking with distress and wrongly convinced they’re going to die from some obscure disease. But this entire article not only displays a startling naiveté on current consumer information consumption, but it is also terribly misguided, bordering on dangerous.

We need patients to seek to educate themselves. We need patients to understand their disease well enough to adhere to their therapy. We need patients to understand what constitutes an alarming adverse event or recognize they are having a heart attack. We need patients to take control of their health.

Why is it dangerous to forbid our patients to search The Google for symptoms?

1) It’s dangerous because it firewalls patients from their own medical diagnosis. I have a personal problem with this one. My mother, who is not a medical professional, diagnosed me with a very serious medical condition after no fewer than 5 doctors had failed to do so. I had doctors tell me my symptoms were caused by everything from “getting old,” to “not remembering when you wake up in the middle of the night and run into things on your way to the bathroom.” Doctors are certainly trained professionals, but not supreme beings. And patients are not idiots.

Eric Topol, Chief Medical Officer of Scripps said at NYeC in November that in the future, patients will and should become much more involved in their own diagnoses. Wearables give patients access to vast personal health data; apps and software increasingly offer the computing power to process that data. More and more, patients will have the power to diagnose themselves and understand how their lifestyle decisions help or exacerbate their condition. And that is a very good thing, according to Dr. Topol.

2) It’s dangerous because it encourages patients to be good little sheep: not to trouble their simple little minds and to wait patiently for the opportunity to do as they’re told. Patients should look up to the big smart doctor in her white coat and let her take charge of our health. This doctor sets herself up as not a healthcare partner to her patients, but as the one in charge of the operation. And we all know this is not a plan for success. Do a search for “patient centricity” and you will find 294,000 articles about the importance of patients assuming responsibility and accountability for their health.

3) It’s dangerous because it is not realistic. People use the internet. Countless times a day. People demand, and receive, instantaneous access to information. WebMD doesn’t get millions of hits a month because patients are naughty, naughty little mischief makers. WebMD gets millions of hits a month because patients are internet savvy consumers doing what internet savvy consumers do.

Instead of chastising her patients for symptom searching, perhaps this healthcare provider could consider improving her patients’ poor Google skills by:

1) Coaching patients on how to use the internet to effectively find and use healthcare information.

This could make a fantastic group office visit or a class at a local community center.

(To confront the flip side of this for a moment, patients also need to level up. Part of being accountable for their health means not showing up for doctor visits with stacks of pages printed from some sensationalistic tabloid. “Cyber-condriacs” aren’t helping anyone, least of all themselves.)

2) Offering web links to trusted information sources for the most common patient questions. Encourage patients to begin their symptom hunt on your website, because it shows your recommended sites to answer their FAQs.

3) Giving patients a list of 24/7 information sources like local urgent care facilities, nurse hotlines, etc.

4) Proactively educating patients about their disease or condition. Informed patients shouldn’t need to frantically search for information about a symptom that those with their condition frequently experience.

Like it or not, educating patients is part of all of our jobs from now on. Just like with any initiative, there will be areas of particular difficulty that we’ll need to figure out how to deal with. But we can’t all sit around and agree that educated patients predicate better outcomes, and then refuse to help patients learn to educate themselves.


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