It is not uncommon for patients to search the Internet and read up on symptoms they may be experiencing then coming up with a diagnosis before consulting with a physician. Technology has made it easy to access voluminous medical information anytime, anywhere with the use of mobile gadgets.

Understandably, it can be frustrating for a clinician during consults to have to debate with a patient who subscribes to “Dr. Google.”

But endocrinologist and academician Dr Iris Thiele Isip-Tan believes there is a better option to arguing with patients about information found on the World Wide Web.

“Patients are going to google their symptoms, anyway,” she tells MIMS in an interview. A clinician would do better to make it easier for patients by putting out relevant and accurate information or directing them to trustworthy sources, the University of the Philippines Manila College of Medicine professor pointed out.

Dr Isip-Tan is referring to medical information that comes from reputable sources that a doctor has already reviewed and deemed helpful. It’s something like giving an “Internet prescription”.

One goal

Instead of discouraging - or in some cases, berating – patients from googling their symptoms, medical professionals should actively participate in guiding patients when it comes to seeking health or medical information.

As a staunch advocate of health literacy, the endocrinologist believes doctors and patients need to work as a team towards a common goal - achieving optimal health. And most critical and necessary to accomplish this are communication, cooperation and proactivity.

Aside from being a clinician and academician, Dr Isip-Tan sits as chief of the UP College of Medicine’s Medical Informatics Unit and is a medical blogger, all of which help in her advocacy to raise Filipinos’ health literacy.

With so many media platforms easily available to the public, the good doctor has decided to harness the power of social media to push her advocacy.

Not to challenge authority

Dr Isip-Tan has since learned that when people turn to Dr. Google about symptoms or a disease, most are only seeking information. They are not necessarily challenging a doctor’s authority, knowledge or experience.

Physicians should not think that patients turning to Dr. Google are challenging their roles as medical professionals, because admittedly, before the advent of the Internet, physicians were once the ‘gatekeepers” of medical knowledge, Dr. Isip-Tan explained.

Dr. Iris Thiele Isip-Tan on doctors frustrated with patients consulting symptoms over the Internet:
Dr. Iris Thiele Isip-Tan on doctors frustrated with patients consulting symptoms over the Internet: "You can't complain when you don't contribute."

“I always tell them, you can’t complain when you don’t contribute,” she said and added, “We are letting them [just] search, yet we are not providing anything for them.”

So she has a simple proposal: go join the conversation in the Internet if you want to supply them with proper information.

Direct patients to good information

As an endocrinologist, a good fraction of her time is devoted to health education - from the network of organs that make up the endocrine system which is lesser known - to related treatments for diabetes, which is a common concern among patients.

“I usually explain in clinic, but I find it helpful if I recommend a website which I already viewed and I know how useful it is for the patient - that is what I call an internet prescription. You [as a physician] already vetted the website,” she said.

Internet prescription is a list of websites given to patients after a consult for further reading. A good source would include the author, name, qualifications, dates, and if there are conflicts of interest.

One discovery she made after her foray as a medical blogger is that there is a niche for health articles written in Filipino. Through her blog, Endocrine Witch, she was able to track the common search terms which led people to visit her blog, and surprisingly, the terms were mostly written in Filipino.

Realizing a need for medical information written in the native language inspired her to write her blog posts in Filipino.

At the same time, she reminds fellow clinicians that with information so readily accessible, it is still the patient who makes the final decision. Doctors can only advocate but the doctor-patient relationship is not “patriarchal” and patients have options.

Study on Dr Google

According to a Belgian study that looked into the health-search behaviours with Dr Google of 963 patients, it is not as bad as most medical professionals think.

University of Leuven in Belgium researchers studied if googling their symptoms would influence patients’ behaviour during doctor consultation. Participants’ ages ranged from 18 to 75.

It turned out that Dr Google did not pose a “threat” to doctors as “more than half of the responders had more confidence in their GP after searching online,” the researchers wrote.

The GPs themselves reported no negative experience with patients who turned to the Internet for medical information.

These patients still went on to schedule appointments with their doctors after googling their symptoms and that it even led to “better mutual understanding of symptoms and diagnosis.”

The study results notwithstanding, Dr Isip-Tan believes that actually talking to a doctor about a medical condition is still the best way to understanding a health concern and how it can be treated or managed. MIMS

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