Curbing medical misinformation

Mark Twain wrote, “Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint.” I'd like to have this quotation blown up and framed in my office exam room. It is not books that I'm worried about though, it's the Internet. 

Never before has there been such a bounty of easily accessible medical information available to the public. Gone are the days of trekking to the library to do research.  Most people seeking news or knowledge just turn on the home computer. “Google it” has become a common catchphrase among the young and old. The Internet puts the world at our fingertips, but is too much information a dangerous thing?

I'm not saying the Internet is the root of all evil. There are many factual, informative and helpful websites for people looking for more information on a specific symptom or disease. There are online support services for those dealing with specific illnesses or syndromes. Medical journals and textbooks are published online, making it easy for clinicians to stay up to date on the latest research. These are just a few of the positive applications of the web.

However, there also seems to be a website supporting every bizarre theory or endorsing a wonder treatment for whatever ails you. Many websites are not fact checked. These days, if you have an opinion, it is easy to present it as fact online. 

I now have patients calling me in the middle of the night to ask me if they might have some unusual disease they read about online. Nervous expectant moms are asking about rare complications of pregnancy or delivery. Most often, I have patients not only diagnosing themselves from what they read online, but they are also eager to tell me how to treat their self-diagnosed ailment — all before I've even taken a history or done an exam. 

I often caution my patients with the same warning that I give my ten-year-old son.  Not everything on the Internet is true. 

One of my physician colleagues created an information packet for newly pregnant patients that she jokingly refers to as, “Leave the Googling to me.” It is a wealth of accurate, current and readable knowledge on everything from diet and exercise in pregnancy to warning signs for common complications. I try to educate both my obstetric and gynecologic patients on reliable medical websites, but with the caveat that a visit to WebMD cannot replace a visit to a health care provider.

As health care providers, it is our responsibility to provide our patients with as much information as possible on diagnosis, treatment, alternatives and prevention.  Listening to and educating our patients — with understandable terminology and open dialogue — should be a priority at every visit.  

In this age of technology, it is also crucial that we discuss with patients the possible dangers of relying on the Internet for medical advice. Maybe we as providers can help prevent the spread of misinformation while promoting responsible web use.
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