Doctor weighs pros and cons of turning to the Internet for medical advice

WASHINGTON — Many people turn to the Internet for medical advice, for everything from dealing with a sprain to determining whether or not to vaccinate kids. Doctors say that can be a mixed blessing.

 

“I think there is plenty of excellent information on the Internet,” says Dr. Ranit Mishori, a family physician who is also an associate professor at the Georgetown University School of Medicine.

 

But she warns there is also “plenty of terrible information that can be very harmful to patients, and can impact the relationship between patients and physicians.”

 

She says people need to be wary of sites that present debunked research as fact — most notably, those focusing on the work of Andrew Wakefield, a British doctor who claimed he had proven a strong link between childhood vaccinations and autism.  His research, which has since been removed from medical journals, is still cited by opponents of state vaccination requirements.

 

Another problem: patients using the Internet as a substitute for a doctor.

 

“What I don’t like and many of my colleagues find troublesome is that patients come in with a diagnosis that they have already made based on what we call ‘Dr. Google,’” says Mishori.

 

And yet she believes the Internet has a strong positive role to play in the doctor/patient relationship.  With so many clinicians strapped for time, and office visits kept to as short as 15 minutes, physicians can use reliable sites to give patients extra information they can peruse at home.     

 

It can help them better understand complex medical issues, and enable them to engage in an informed dialogue with health care professionals.

 

“When a patient comes to me and says ‘listen, this is what I am having, this is what I am experiencing, I did read up on it,’ that to me is an empowered patient,” Mishori explains.

 

Also, she is fond of using the Internet to link patients with online listserves for people with similar health issues.

 

“Those communities on the Internet can be lifesaving and can be extremely beneficial,” Mishori says.

 

Her favorite websites for patients tend to be those heavily backed by the scientific community, covering a wide range of medical conditions and questions.

 

At the top of her list: CDC.gov and NIH.gov. Mishori also recommends, as good general references, mayoclinic.com, familydoctor.org, and WEBMD.com.

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