How to Talk to Your Doctor About Health Info You Find Online

Make online resources work for both you and your doctor
December 27, 2017 9:56 am Last Updated: January 9, 2018 6:51 pm

More and more people are going online to search for information about their health. Though it can be a minefield where unverified sources abound, searching the internet can help people to understand their health problems, and give them access to emotional and social support.

For many, getting to actually see a doctor remains difficult, and constraints around appointment times mean that some discussions are often cut short. But by using the internet, patients can prepare for appointments, or follow up on issues that left them with unanswered questions.

But not everyone is so keen on patients using the internet in this way. Some doctors and other health professionals have doubts about the quality and usefulness of the information available. There are also suggestions that “cyberchrondria” may be fueling a surge in unnecessary tests and appointments.

Similarly, though so many people are using online resources to fill in gaps in their knowledge, or to help them ask the right questions, they may not be comfortable bringing it up in the consulting room.

For our latest research project, we wanted to find out just why it can be so difficult to discuss online information with doctors. We found that in addition to people being embarrassed in case they have misunderstood the information, or can’t remember it accurately, they also fear a negative reaction from the doctor, who may perceive them as difficult or challenging.

How to Make It Work

So how can you, as a patient, bring up online information with your doctor? It sounds obvious, but first, you need a good, open relationship with them. Tell them you have been looking online, but ask for their feedback on the information, and for any useful sites they know of. We found that patients with a good doctor relationship felt able to discuss information and ideas from websites and online forums in a considered and critical manner.

There’s no shame in searching for health information online. (Syda Productions/Shutterstock)

Importantly, it is not about the patient trying to be the doctor. Ideally, patients should bring along their information, use it to help explain their key concerns, or detail the options they’ve explored, but also make it clear that they still want and value their doctor’s input.

Some of the patients we spoke to told us that they are acutely aware of their doctor’s negative feelings toward the internet. In these situations, people can be tempted to disguise the source of their information. They may pretend they got it elsewhere, or be very careful not to reveal its origin at all.

For some people we spoke to, the process of trying to integrate the results of their web searches into their communications with the doctor was frustrating, to say the least. They felt uncomfortable and embarrassed, and sometimes they held back key information. This made for unproductive meetings that were felt to be a waste of time.

This process can definitely be improved. As more appointments are conducted over smartphone rather than face to face, and some doctors admit to using online sources to diagnose patients, the rest of the process needs to catch up with technology.

There needs to be a new and more productive way to integrate online information into doctor–patient discussions. First of all, there should be better ways for patients to collect and organize accurate information online so that they can organize their thoughts and prepare for a visit.

In the consulting room itself, doctors should use the research as an opportunity to have more productive discussions and teach patients about their health issues. Patients need to question the online information source, message, and credibility. But doctors can also use the discussion as an opportunity to nudge patients to think about their health options and consider what’s important to them.

Just as a doctor is not solely responsible for the health of a patient, neither is the patient themselves. Internet research can no longer be dismissed. Even if inaccurate, it can help build a better relationship between patient and doctor, and give them both a better way to manage health in the modern world.

is a senior lecturer of psychology and  is a researcher and demonstrator at Northumbria University in England. This article was originally published on The Conversation.