Social Media Notebook: Get on Board the Health Internet Train

Fard Johnmar
Published: Tuesday, Sep 16, 2008
In recent years, several studies have indicated that physicians are very dissatisfied with the medical profession. According to an article published in the June 17, 2008 edition of the New York Times, declining reimbursements, managed care, physician shortages (especially in primary care), and concerns about malpractice are contributing to doctors’ discontent. Another frustration is the steady erosion of the doctor–patient relationship. Once the primary source of medical information, physicians are routinely challenged by a raft of medical “Googlers.”

Dr. Scott Haig highlighted physicians’ growing frustration with Internet-empowered patients in a famous Time essay. He suggested that patients have a wealth of information but lack the expertise to interpret and apply it correctly. Many people reacted negatively to Haig’s essay. For example, an article discussing it posted November 10, 2007, on Tara Parker-Pope’s New York Times blog “Well” received hundreds of negative comments.

Unfortunately for Internet-leery physicians, the Web’s influence is steadily growing. In August, the Center for Studying Health System Change released research indicating that “56% of American adults sought information about a personal health concern from a source other than their doctor.” It is clear that online health content is affecting patients’ habits. A study published in July 2008 by my firm, Envision Solutions, revealed that nearly 38% of US adults say they have doubted a medical professional’s opinion or diagnosis because it conflicted with information they found online.

Despite these compelling statistics, it would be a mistake to conclude that Dr. Web has become Americans’ most trusted source of health information. In fact, people still take physicians’ advice seriously—online and off. For example, Envision Solutions found that 13% of Americans would consult physician-developed blogs and other online content first if they believed they had a medical problem or disease.

Many physicians want to repair the patient–doctor relationship. However, a few view the Internet with great skepticism and resent that relatively untrained people are regularly questioning their medical decisions and demanding unnecessary treatment. What’s a beleaguered physician to do? Unfortunately for overtaxed physicians, some are prescribing more active engagement with Internet-empowered patients. In a January 2008 Salon.com article, Dr. Rahul K. Parikh said:

“Today, there are many accurate, high-quality health sites, and doctors should make it a standard practice to recommend them to each and every patient. Besides reducing the randomness of a Web search, this can reinforce a physician’s advice during a visit, which is especially helpful, as studies show that patients typically remember no more than half of what their doctor tells them.”

Parikh suggests that physicians who fail to heed this advice will ultimately face a larger problem: Internetpowered conspiracy theories that have very real public health consequences. Recently, the CDC released new data indicating that measles cases sharply increased during the first seven months of 2008. The culprit: a growing movement, partly fueled by the Internet, of parents who refuse to vaccinate their children because of fears about a link between the measles vaccine and autism. Commenting on this unfortunate trend, Parikh said:

“The theory that vaccines cause autism first came onto the scene in the late ‘90s, just as people were going online en masse. We weren’t paying much attention until parents started to refuse vaccines. When we looked, we realized that many parents were exposed to story after story on autism Web sites and in chat rooms about the dangers of vaccines. That echo chamber of opinion became a reality despite our best efforts to prove otherwise. Now we’re left with a lingering conspiracy theory that vaccines cause autism, even though the best, unbiased evidence says otherwise.”

Although the Internet train has left the station, it’s not too late for more doctors to get on board. While many physicians fear the Web and blame it for eroding their quality of life and relationships with their patients, it cannot and should not be ignored. Doctors of all ages will either learn how to harness the Internet or be overwhelmed by it.

Fard Johnmar is the founder of Envision Solutions, LLC, a fullservice healthcare marketing communications consulting firm. Visit www.envisionsolutionsnow.com to learn more about the company and the services it offers.


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