We live in an interesting and highly transformational age. As a medical student, doing a paper or research project required hours in the library poring over the heavy tomes of Index Medicus to find appropriate references. Then a trip to the reference desk to get bound copies of the journals from which I could take notes or make photocopies. This time-consuming process was the only way to access reliable information in the 1970s and before.
We are now in an era where such medical information is available at the touch of a few keystrokes. I can quickly access and read dozens of abstracts selected from hundreds of articles filtered to selected key words and concepts.
A parallel process is available to our patients as well. Rather than relying on the doctor to be the ultimate channel of medical information, the average person with a computer or smartphone can readily access a World Wide Web of medical information. Or misinformation.
According to Joseph Coughlin, Director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s AgeLab, this phenomenon is not limited to younger generation adults. With people 80 and older as the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population, many of these older adults are increasingly tech savvy. They expect to be active and functional as never before. They are living longer and thus acquire many of the chronic conditions of aging. These require attention with juggling treatments, medications, lifestyle choices, and medical decision-making among multiple factors.
My interaction with patients at all ages is enhanced with our electronic medical record’s MyChart communication system, and it is often used by those in their 80s or older. This allows them to pose questions, report symptoms, request refills and appointments, and review diagnostic study results.
An interesting statistic: the average person visits the doctor three times a year, but spends 52 hours online searching for medical information. This allows them to personalize their own care and acquire information that can help guide their choices. It also promotes more informed discussions with their health care providers at visits or online. However, not all internet sources are dependable.
One example is a recent patient who was highly concerned after reading that a cholesterol lowering drug could aggravate neuropathy in his feet. I advised this was an uncommon side effect and that his alcohol intake was much more likely contributing to this. Of higher long-term importance was his elevated risk of heart disease. Dr. Google wouldn’t know that.
The kinds of challenging choices we physicians have studied now are presented to our patients, who have increasingly become knowledgeable, sophisticated partners in their quest for improved health.
Furthermore, personalized, digital medical information can now be found in wearable and implantable devices, smart appliances and automobiles, high-tech toilets, and online patient-directed forums and support groups.
We are wired in for a new model of medical care. Marcus Welby is dead and Dr. Google alive and well. Still your trusted health care professional can play a vital role by helping you avoid the blind alleys, fake medical news and digital misinformation. More than ever, it is critical that health professionals help patients navigate through information overload, sort the wheat from the chaff, provide perspective along with clinical acumen in guiding difficult decisions while respecting patient autonomy. Lives depend on it.