Doctors Use the Web at Work, But Wary of What Patients Read Online

5/5/14Follow @gthuang

Whatever happened to Health 2.0? You know, the trend toward using Web tools and resources for healthcare that started in the mid-2000s?

The name may have gone out of style, but the movement led to new online communities for patients and doctors, lots of health-information sites, and changing patient-doctor relationships.

More than three-quarters of U.S. physicians surveyed now use search engines to help them make medical decisions. That’s not as bad as it might sound: the most common resources doctors say they access online are clinical case studies, research reports, instructional videos, and whitepapers.

The vast majority of doctors also say Web resources with user-generated content can contain inaccurate information—and, tellingly, that patients misinterpreting what they read online causes tension with physicians (more on that below).

That’s all according to a new report from MedData Group, a Topsfield, MA-based healthcare marketing firm. The report surveyed 164 U.S. doctors, across specialties and practice sizes, in April.

The findings get at the heart of the evolving patient-doctor relationship in the digital age. As more information (and misinformation) about health and diseases becomes available on the Web, patients will arrive at clinics armed with more opinions, questions, and demands for their doctors. How clinicians react could affect how the health IT market plays out.

First, here are the Web tools doctors say they use most:

Web tools used by doctors to support decision-making (image: MedData Group)

That 78 percent of respondents use search engines for work, to me, just reflects the fact that doctors are people too. With specialized search tools like Google Scholar, finding resources online is easier than ever. Interestingly, less than 30 percent use healthcare-specific e-mails and online physician communities to support their decision making. (Perhaps most encouraging is that only 5 percent use social media for that purpose.)

Not surprisingly, the types of content that doctors access online look different from what most patients would use:

Web resources and content used by doctors to support decision-making (image: MedData Group)

About 58 percent of doctors say they read case studies on the Web, while 49 percent read research reports. Ten percent say they don’t use Web-based resources at all.

But the most interesting responses came when doctors were asked what the biggest challenges to Health 2.0 are:

Health 2.0 challenges for doctors (image: MedData Group)

Fifty-eight percent say the top challenge is that patients often misinterpret what they read online, causing tension in the patient-doctor relationship. Fifty-one percent say the top issue is that user-generated content can contain inaccuracies (no surprise there). Those factors greatly outweigh patient privacy as a barrier to Health 2.0, at least from the doctors’ perspective.

What’s more, over one-third of doctors say “all of the above,” which means that—if I’m reading the chart right—patient-doctor tension is all but ubiquitous now that people are getting health information from the Web. This seems like a huge issue for the healthcare system: just imagine what will happen when the masses start analyzing their own medical charts online.

My conclusion? Everyone knows what you read online might be wrong, but the flow of digital data isn’t slowing down. When it comes to healthcare, take any information with an extra grain of salt, and consult with your doctor—he or she has almost certainly read it, too. In the end, the human interactions between doctors and patients may be the most important thing.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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  • elt38

    When I was diagnosed with a rare cancer two years ago, I couldn’t rely on even the top-notch specialists around Boston to know much about it. So, to better evaluate doctor recommendations and be an effective collaborator, I had to educate myself. After a lot of surfing, I found that credible data was only available from recent research papers and clinical studies. The doctors in this survey appear to agree.
    I believe the doctors are right in relying primarily on peer-reviewed data. But I also believe that if a patient can establish his bona fides by using sources of similar quality, the tension with the patient can be avoided.
    Medical journals should require plain-language summaries of every article, and make them available for free.

  • http://ducknetweb.blogspot.com/ Medicalquack

    You also have the other extreme too with special search diagnosis software for doctors and I’ve heard stories on that as well with being over diagnosed with way more than needed.