What Online Healthcare Information Does to Doctor and Patient Relationships


The proliferation of online medical information has affected the frequency and nature of patient/physician interactions, according to the findings of a survey released today by the Merck Manuals, one of the world’s most widely-used medical resources since 1899. The survey of 240 family physicians, conducted at a recent industry conference, revealed that 82 percent of respondents say patients are contacting their office or nurse’s line with medical questions more frequently due to the increased availability of medical information online in recent years.

Almost 90 percent of family physicians believe this trend has affected the frequency of patient visits. However, respondents differed in their perceptions:

  • 60 percent said patients come into the office more frequently because they read about symptoms/treatments online
  • 29 percent said patients visit the office less frequently because they read about symptoms/treatments online
  • 11 percent said online medical information has not affected frequency of patient visits

“In some ways, it’s made appointments more complicated,” said Timothy, a family physician from Anchorage, Alaska, who participated in the survey. “Patients search their symptoms online and see the worst-case scenarios, rather than the most common scenarios, so they come into appointments with more anxiety.”

This sentiment was shared among many family physicians surveyed. Ninety-seven percent said patients come into the office with misinformation. Nearly eighty percent of respondents said the availability of medical information online has made patients more likely to question their diagnoses or recommendations.

“We run into problems when patients go to online sources that aren’t evidence-based medicine,” said Khyati, a physician from Dixon, Illinois. “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.”

When it comes to physicians turning to digital tools in their own practices, 83 percent of respondents say they regularly confirm treatments or diagnoses using an online medical resource. Eighty-nine percent say that regular access to medical information online makes them more confident during patient interactions.

“Our survey uncovered an interesting dynamic at play. While the ease and availability of online medical information instills confidence in family physicians, they believe “Dr. Google” has the potential to introduce anxiety among patients,” says Dr. Robert S. Porter, M.D., Merck Manuals Editor-in-Chief. “The disconnect here is credibility. When reviewing medical information online, physicians can exercise a high level of discretion based on their training. It’s more challenging for patients to identify medically correct sources.”

“That’s why the Merck Manuals introduced a credibility test called the STANDS method in 2015, which allows patients to quickly assess whether a medical website is reliable or not,” said Porter. “Of course, patients should always consult their physician when making decisions about their health.”

Bridging the credibility gap is a key part of Global Medical Knowledge 2020 – a worldwide initiative to make current and accurate medical information accessible to nearly three billion consumers and health care professionals by 2020. Learn more at MerckManuals.com.


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