Talking to your Doctor about Online Health Information

Source: Redpacientes

January 13, 2016

By Marleah Dean Kruzel

Nothing has recently changed clinical practice more fundamentally than a communication innovation: the Internet.
~ Drs. Maria Caiata-Zufferey and Peter Schulz

Online health information seeking has changed the healthcare field, medical practice, and patients’ experiences.

According to the Pew Research Center, 72% of Americans use the Internet to seek health information. While seeking health information online can be empowering for patients, doctors are concerned about possible consequences for following Internet medical advice.

Patients may seek health information for a variety of reasons such as to locate a new doctor after moving, learn about a family member’s recent cancer diagnosis, reduce their uncertainty about a personal health condition, prepare for an upcoming appointment, or even determine whether they need to see a doctor for particular symptoms. Perhaps this last reason is why some doctors are concerned.


This week I read an article on KevinMD.com called “What Passes for Medical Advice Online isn’t actually True or Safe.” In this article, Dr. Edwin Leap, an emergency department physician, explains his concerns about patients using the Internet to seek health information and medical advice. While Dr. Leap acknowledges the benefits of using the Internet to seek health information (e.g., accessibility), at the same time, he writes, “The advice and direction given causes more anxiety than relief.”

For example, one study — published in the journal Patient Education and Counseling — interviewed patients and physicians to identify benefits and challenges regarding online health information seeking. Patients reported the following three challenges: 1) contradictory information, 2) complex information, and 3) information overload.

So if the Internet may cause more harm then help, then what is the solution?

Health communication scholars like Dr. Carma Bylund argue one solution is to talk to our doctors about the health information we find online.

Communicating about online health information enables patients to feel empowered while also providing doctors with the opportunity to verify the medical advice.

Here are a couple helpful tips for patients, based on Dr. Bylund’s research, which may help facilitate these conversations:

  1. Be assertive when presenting online health information. Bring the information with you to the medical consultation. Describe how you found the information (i.e., what websites you used, etc.). Be prepared to explain what you do and don’t understand as well as how the information might help you manage your health condition, illness, symptom, etc.
  2. Because time is constrained in medical consultations, explain to the doctor why it is important to talk about the information you found. Be specific. For instance, you could say something like, “At some point during our interaction, I would like to talk about some information I found online about meditation. I think meditation might help me cope with my recent cancer diagnosis.”
  3. Appeal to the doctor as an expert. Doctors spend years perfecting their craft. And although they do not know everything, as Dr. Leap points out in his article mentioned above, they are experts in their field and want to help. Thus, introduce the online health information in a “face-saving way.” Doing so results in higher satisfaction for both the patient and the doctor.

In sum, to maximize on the ability to seek health information online, as patients we need to learn how to communicate the information with our doctors, and doctors need to learn how to appropriately address the information we find online.

Dr. Marleah Dean Kruzel (PhD, Texas A&M University) is an Assistant Professor in Health Communication at the University of South Florida. She studies patient-provider and family communication about hereditary breast and ovarian cancer. A BRCA2-positive patient herself, Marleah is committed to translating her research into practice, which is why she volunteers as an Outreach Group Leader for Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered (FORCE) and maintains a blog called “The Patient and the Professor.” For more information, visit her website: www.cancercommunicationresearch.com. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

For more information regarding online health information, check out the following articles:

Bylund, C. L., Gueguen, J. A., Sabee, C. M., Imes, R. S., Li, Y., & Sanford, A. A. (2007). Provider-patient dialogue about Internet health information: An exploration of strategies to improve the provider-patient relationship. Patient Education and Counseling, 66(3), 346–352.

Sommerhalder, K., Abraham, A., Zufferey, M. C., Barth, J., & Abel, T. (2009). Internet information and medical consultations: Experiences from patients’ and physicians’ perspectives. Patient Education and Counseling, 77(2), 266–271.