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Why The Ubiquity Of ‘Dr. Google’ Can Be A Blessing Or A Curse

Since the advent of the World Wide Web, an abundance of information is available in an instant. In the recent past, information sources were printed materials, books and journals. Unless you were a subscriber, you would have to go to a library to obtain them. As a result of the extra effort needed to obtain answers to challenging questions, people had to have a true desire to find the answer. Otherwise, they would defer the acquisition of knowledge to experts.

Now we can not only type questions into an Internet browser on a computer but we can speak questions into portable handheld devices. We can get answers to our questions at warp speed—so fast, in fact, that tech-savvy patients will ask Alexa or Siri to look up a diagnosis or treatment before the entire sentence can even escape your lips.

Like many professions, the healthcare field has been impacted greatly by the Internet. With websites such as WebMD and countless blogs—some created by medical professionals and others not—information on various medical conditions and procedures is infinite. At times, this is beneficial to patients. In other instances, it can be detrimental.

A running joke in our profession is that health care professionals make the worst patients. I would argue that those who use Dr. Google are even worse. For example, I recently treated a patient who, after watching a YouTube video, attempted to aspirate his own cyst. Not only was the attempt unsuccessful because the cyst was solid and physically could not be aspirated, but the patient also acquired an infection as the tools he used to “drain” the cyst were not clean or sterile. It is common for patients to watch videos online and attempt their own treatments or self-diagnose. Additionally, patients will often watch invasive surgical procedures and have a preconceived notion about what kind of operation they need and how the surgeon will perform it.  

There are certainly times when practitioners can benefit from having so much information so readily available. For instance, patients will ask questions about treatments they have read about on the Internet. Sometimes the treatments are experimental, to say the least, or not appropriate for the diagnosis. Other times, you may be enlightened by patients’ information and can integrate it into your practice. With the plethora of information, doctors cannot know it all, even with the mandatory continuing medical education credits we obtain to remain licensed. Keeping an open mind and listening to your patients can be extremely beneficial.

Although we all have a limited amount of time to spend with each patient, it may be a good practice to just sit back and listen for a while. Develop a rapport with your patients so they are comfortable asking you questions rather than being guarded and intimidated. The more patients tell you, the better you can piece all of the puzzle together and come up with accurate diagnoses and treatments.

Just this week, a patient who was adamantly opposed to invasive procedures to treat plantar fasciitis described a treatment method used by an Olympic athlete. After looking up academic resources, I was able to find one study supporting the treatment and I may recommend that treatment to other patients.  

There are also great generational differences among patients. For example, younger patients may prefer to be referred to websites for more information and more senior patients may prefer tangible paper handouts. As a podiatrist, it is important to adapt to the different needs of patients of all generations.

In addition to generational differences among providers and patients, differences exist among peers as well. Young physicians, who have been in practice for fewer than 10 years, may use different methods to acquire knowledge and treat patients. Younger physicians may be more familiar with electronic medical records and digital imaging since this type of technology has existed ever since they began training. They may also be more familiar with “apps” as opposed to looking up information in a book.

I have to admit that residents have beat me to information by looking things up on various cell phone applications while I attempt to peruse through the information in my pharmacopeia, which I have repaired with tape more times than I like to admit. Electronic resources are great but in case of tech failure, it is always good to have backups.

Dr. Ryans is in private practice in St. Louis.

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Camille Ryans, DPM
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