January 27, 2010

When Patients Google for Medical Advice

By Jennifer Shu, MD FAAP
If you’ve been practicing in the 21st century, I’m willing to bet you’ve had patients come into your office armed with the latest “research” they’ve found on the Internet about condition X and either want to know what you think or demand the treatment recommended on the Web. I can’t say that I blame them for trying—after all, the Internet is open 24/7 and is often easier to access than the doctor’s office or nurse advice line. Since the Internet is here to stay, I believe physicians would do well to embrace this relatively new influence on our patients’ health literacy and channel our energy into helping them find the most accurate and reliable information out there.
I had the opportunity to present my views on finding credible healthcare information online at the BlogHer 2009 conference, a meeting of women (and some men) bloggers all over the country who make a living or hobby out of sharing their thoughts with online readers. As a member of a panel of experts moderated by our own Dr. Gwenn O’Keeffe, we had an audience outside of the usual realm of conferences geared toward medical professionals. I hope that by providing Googling-guidance to bloggers seeking health information, this information will then trickle down to their readers, who likely include healthcare consumers such as our patients’ parents.
I’m including some of the tips we provided and hope you’ll share your ideas too:
Look for .gov sites. Governmental sources are credible and reliable. Some great resources are http://medlineplus.gov and http://www.cdc.gov.
Visit medical organization pages. Professional associations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics www.aap.org offer accurate information. Also, consider www.medem.com (which contains a collection of information from multiple medical societies). The American Medical Association www.ama-assn.org and your state or local medical society may also provide helpful resources.
Check into a hospital site. One site with extensive information is http://www.mayoclinic.com/ but many hospitals offer credible web resources. You may wish to check out a local medical center’s site first.
See sites devoted to health information. Some examples are http://kidshealth.org/ (which has information targeted to kids and teens as well as to parents) and www.uptodate.com.
Strength in numbers. If several web sites give the same medical information, there’s an increased chance that it’s credible. Also check that there are multiple physician reviewers and that the information has been verified for accuracy recently.
Consider the source. Before getting too concerned about something you read online, consider who authors the site. Some organizations and individuals can look official but may not really provide trustworthy information.
Talk to your doctor. Your doctor should be your sounding board when it comes to making sense of online medical information. If you have questions about something you’ve read, be sure to ask your pediatrician, who can put the information into the context of your own child’s health. Better yet, ask your doctor for recommendations for favorite health web sites so you can go straight to a reliable source.