It is an all too common scenario for healthcare practitioners – patients will inadvertently reveal that they ‘Googled’ their symptoms prior to the consultation. Others may even offer a differential diagnosis and recommend a course of treatment to the practitioner. It is also not uncommon to discover that compliance has been compromised by information that your patient has sourced online.

According to the Pew Research Center, as many as 61% of Americans use the internet to source health information online and the study labelled these users as e-patients. With the proliferation of internet access in South Africa and internet penetration standing at approximately 40% of the population, it is fair to assume that the e-patient trend has also grown in South Africa. Anecdotal evidence from South African practitioners, who are our clients, confirms this trend.

According to an opinion piece in the Society for Participatory Medicine, “it’s absolutely, demonstrably wrong for a doctor to think that doctors know everything that needs to be known and patients can’t possibly know anything useful” and “Googling is a sign of an engaged patient”. Of course, this is just an opinion!

There is no denying that the ardent ‘Googler’ among your patients is more than just an irritation and can even hamper their own treatment and management. But bashing online sources may work against the practitioner in the long run. It can even affect your professional reputation and practice growth. So how do you deal with the internet-tainted patient?

1. Listen and Explain

It may be time consuming but by not listening to your patient, you are ultimately putting up a barrier which can make your patient less compliant. Explain to your patient that the information they have sourced is either incorrect, irrelevant or not applicable to their condition, only if that is the case.

At other times you will have to explain that while their online information is correct, it is not immediately applicable to their case and may be relevant in the future. Irrespective of the way in which you choose to engage the matter, do not be arrogant, insulting or indifferent to your patient’s ‘shallow’ online knowledge.

Remember that there are many reputable sources of medical information online, such as WebMD and MayoClinic (it is unlikely that your patient will opt for Medscape).  You or any other practitioner may eventually reach the same diagnosis or progress to the same treatment that the patient initially mentioned.

It can then appear to the patient that you have wasted time and money during the course of investigations and progressing through therapeutic protocol. Their opinion about you as a medical professional immediately comes into question Word of mouth always matters but in the digital age and with social media, negative reviews spread like wildfire.

2. Question Sources

Fake news and misinformation is rife on the internet. It is possible that your patient may be misinformed rather than have misunderstood the content that they have read online. Politely ask your patient about the source of their online information and access it during the consultation if necessary.

The HON Code is a convenient way of identifying legitimate medical information online. Scroll down to the footer (bottom section) of any of the popular medical websites and you will usually find the HON code badge. However, not all reputable medical websites opt to apply for this authoritative badge.

Help your patient differentiate between fakes news, sales pitches and facts. Refer your patient to reputable medical websites rather than being ‘anti-Googling’. A little time and attention to this matter can greatly improve your patient’s compliance and even disarm the most insistent of patients in future consultations.

3. Control the Narrative

This is a ploy that politicians and spin doctors know all too well. Speak out first! Refer your patients to reputable online sources and encourage them to read more on their condition from websites that you recommend. Share relevant information on your practice social media accounts and be consistent.

If you are not willing to refer your patients to reputable medical websites then build your own. It does not have to be time consuming or expensive. A competent medical writer is easily available on websites like Freelancer or Upwork. The competition for freelance medical writing projects is high and freelancers, even medical professionals, are willing to ‘come in cheap’ to grow their portfolio.

The ability to add articles or blog posts to your website should not be restricted to your web designer.  It is your website and you should have the ability to post an article or blog post at the very least. If you cannot post content on your website then start your own blog on WordPress.com or post articles on your Facebook page.

The Doctor Does Not Know Best

The fact is that you know far more than a patient with little to no medical knowledge but do not underestimate the patient’s ability to research online and learn. There may be an element of truth and fact in what patient says based on their online search. Most importantly, a different opinion from a colleague may validate your patient’s initial claims and ultimately compromise your professional position.

Gone are the days of the all revering patient who never questioned their doctor’s statements. Patients like to believe that while the doctor may know more, they may not always know what is best for them. This perception can be debated but at the end of the day your patient is a healthcare consumer. There is no shortage of healthcare professionals in urban areas within South Africa and your attitude towards their online research can harm your practice.

There is no need to go against evidence-based medicine or your ethics in order to satisfy your patient’s demands. Listening to your patient, explaining complex medical concepts as simply as possible and steering the patient towards reliable medical sources is far more effective than taking a tough stance against the annoyance of the difficult e-patient.