Dr. Google has become the first source of information for many patients. Among its strengths are 24/7 availability, anonymity, and the impression of access to objective knowledge. It offers quick and easy self-diagnosis without waiting in line, having a stressful conversation with a doctor, making an appointment, and taking a day off.
According to a report by Eligility, 89% of Americans enter their symptoms into a search engine before a doctor’s appointment. 7% of all Google searches are related to health. That equates to 70,000 queries per minute.
Patients do not know that the obtained results often have nothing to do with medical knowledge. What matters to them is getting information and help as quickly as possible – when there is something wrong with health, people’s actions are driven by emotions such as fear and uncertainty. So what to do when a patient comes to a doctor with information found online?
Tip 1: Listen, explain, educate
Most patients trust Dr. Google blindly, assuming it knows more than a doctor. Google indeed has access to millions of online data records. But Google cannot assess their scientific value or quality. Instead, algorithms look for – or rather crawl – the most popular information that fits the keywords.
A doctor should tell their patient how the search engine works: Google is a private company and the way its algorithms sort knowledge and show it to patients is not entirely clear. Many websites are explicitly optimized to improve their visibility in search results. The presence on the first page of Google search results can be just a result of good Search Engine Optimization (SEO), not the quality of content.
Tip 2: Use Google to achieve therapeutic goals
The authors of a paper published in the Journal of the Medical Library Association, “What can we do about Dr.Google?Using the electronic medical record (EMR) to prescribe reliable online patient education,”have a different idea. Google is there and is beloved by all of us. Thus, fighting with it makes no sense.
However, doctors can moderate the way patients use online resources, for example, by recommending specific websites. A doctor may compile a database of trusted sources of information on the most commonly diagnosed health problems, then enter them into the notes field in electronic health records and print them out as recommendations. If doctors prescribe medicines, they can also prescribe “knowledge.” It also resonates with the new role of doctors as supporters and health consultants rather than only medics.
Tip 3: Leverage the power of technology to strengthen your authority
The doctor has the complete picture of the patient’s health in the electronic health record, including test results, diagnoses, prescribed drugs, etc. This detailed knowledge that is easily accessible might be quickly analyzed to spot long-term trends or even predict some health issues in advance. Besides EHR, the doctor has access to drug databases, recent scientific publications, clinical trials, and other digital tools which support decision-making.
Why not inform the patient about the digital tools implemented and used? Not only to strengthen an image of a modern doctor who uses new technologies but also to show the background of the doctor’s work. A stethoscope around a neck is no longer the only attribute of a doctor. It is equally essential to be up-to-date with new solutions which guarantee the highest standard of care.
Tip 4: Discuss the information found by the patient on the Internet
Patients want to feel that they are participating in the decision-making process. Ignoring printouts brought by them, or criticizing Dr. Google or the patient’s behavior, lead to an even bigger erosion of trust. Proper communication includes listening to the patient’s point of view and doubts.
Information found on Google should be verified – the doctor needs to honestly emphasize which pieces of information are helpful and which are misleading. Finally, let your patients know that their engagement is welcome and valuable. There is nothing better than well-informed patients, with one disclaimer: well-informed based on credible information.
Dr. Google today is much better than the one five years ago. Its competencies are improving quickly. The tech giant knows the misleading diagnoses problem and wants to change it. For example, last year, Google announced an AI-driven app to help patients diagnose skin problems.
The COVID-19 pandemic enhanced this new mindset. To prevent the spread of fake news, Google started redirecting users to trusted websites run by public health organizations. Doctors should be aware that Dr. Google will become more effective over time, and soon it will be hard to criticize or ignore it.