Internet-savvy patient or “cyberchondriac”?

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Patients who show up in their doctor’s office after having already conducted countless hours of internet research and come up with several potential self-diagnoses can prompt some mixed feelings from physicians. While some may embrace their patients’ desire to know as much as possible about their condition, others can find the task of battling against bad information cumbersome and detrimental to care. Yet, according to an interesting BBC piece from Dr. Anthea Martin, senior medical adviser with the Medical and Dental Defense Union of Scotland, doctors should be careful about dismissing patients who turn to the internet for medical research as “cyberchondriacs.”

Referring to findings from a new study, published this month in the British Journal of General Practice, which analyzes the impact of patients’ internet research on doctor’s diagnoses and care, Martin says that doctors concerns’ range from worry that they won’t be able to digest and respond to the patients’ materials and concerns within the allotted appointment time, to fear that patients may have strong feelings about inaccurate or misleading medical information garnered from less than trustworthy sites. What’s more, some physicians included in the study also said that they struggled with anxiety when they felt patients might potentially be more informed about a condition than they were. As Martin writes:

“Some [general practitioners] said they were frightened of losing control of the consultation and of the prospect of having to admit to their patient that they have read something they don’t understand.”

Yet, whatever anxieties or concerns may arise when a patient shows up for an appointment with an armload of internet print-outs, Martin stresses the importance of taking his or her concerns seriously. While, in many cases, after hearing a patient out—or thumbing through the research—all of that web wisdom won’t necessarily add up to much (or apply to their ultimate diagnosis or treatment), in some cases it might. Dismissing a patient’s research out of hand runs the risk of overlooking something important, she says. Martin concludes:

“The message for doctors is clear: don’t dismiss web-wise patients. The risk here is that they may miss an important medical problem. Doctors must listen to what every patient has to say and should consider carefully information presented to them by the patient—even if after doing so they decide to dismiss that self-diagnosis of dengue fever.”

What do you think? Have you ever gone to the doctor’s office with theories about what your diagnosis might be after researching on the web? Or, if you’re a physician or other health care provider, how have you dealt with patients when they come armed with hours of web research? What do you think marks the line between being an informed patient, and being a “cyberchondriac”?

Read Dr. Martin’s full viewpoint for the BBC here.

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