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What Should You Do When Patients Provide Online Research?

What to Do When Patients Provide Online Research

More patients are visiting practices armed with “health” information found online, often requesting those treatment options. What should healthcare providers do when patients provide them with info found online?

For better or for worse, more people getting their news and information online than ever before. Patients and their families scour websites for information about their conditions and even potential alternative treatment options.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Many health care providers are divided.  Some believe patients can improve their basic understanding of medicine and conditions with a little online sleuthing, while others say information online can often be incorrect or misleading, creating "false hope" or added anxiety.

Because there is no regulation or validation of online material — anyone can post information on anything — it can be very hard for patients to distinguish fact from fiction. What should a physician do when given the results of a patient’s internet search? Here are a few do’s and don’t’s so you’re able to handle the situation appropriately:

Don’t immediately discredit the research.   

It may be tempting to immediately swat down online research, but consider this: Patients often have more free time to devote to online learning about new drugs, clinical trials or breakthrough treatments than you do. There have been reported cases where information found online by a patient was ultimately critical to successful treatment and outcome. In more than one case, the information saved the patient's life.

Don’t refuse the information.

If you immediately see by the title that the information is truly off the mark, tell the patient, "From the title, I don't think this applies to you, but I'll be happy to look it over later." If the material you chose to disregard without review was later deemed to be valid and something that could     have positively affected the patient's  outcome — you could be found negligent for failing to allow access to that treatment.

Do read it - and let the patient know that you will.

Let them know you will take the time to determine if the source is credible and if it applies to their particular condition or treatment.

Do update the patient afterward and create documentation of your findings.

Whether your findings are pro or con, keep your patient informed as to what you discover and keep a copy of the material in their file, along with your notes. For example: 10/18/2021 — rec’d article from patient for review. 11/2/21 — discussed article with patient and why it’s the proposed treatment option isn't a viable option for him.

Do make it a habit to inquire about your patients' online health research.

This allows you to offer your expertise and guidance when it comes to reliable sources, making sure they are using appropriate search terms relative to their condition, and verifying the sources and dates of materials.

Do provide educational material.

Providing professional guidance on how to conduct quality online research for health information can be helpful for every patient, even beyond the issue they are seeing you for. You may even want to keep such materials in your patient waiting area if you feel it's appropriate.

Do follow your state’s telemedicine laws.

Make sure you inform your patient that it will take you some time to review their links and internet information. While a quick turnaround is fine for a “chat,” you need to give this the due diligence you would give any medical advice or health information. While you don’t want to discourage patients from discovering useful data, boundaries are also key. You may want to tell them you will be prepared to discuss it at their next visit

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