A new study challenges the notion that Dr Google undermines the relationship between doctors and patients, finding instead it has a positive effect by improving health literacy.
Health-related questions are the second most common type of searches punched into Google, and concerns have been raised that the practice can cause patients to doubt their doctor’s professional judgement.
The multi-centre observational cross-sectional study was designed to investigate the prevalence of googling in an emergency setting, and the impact it has on the therapeutic relationship between patients and their doctors.
The study, published in the MJA, looked at the experience of 400 adult patients who presented to the emergency departments of two hospitals in Melbourne, during 60 shifts between February and May 2017, assessing levels of health literacy using the e-health literacy scale (eHEALS), and the impact of internet searching using their own newly-developed tool, ISMII, which has not been formally validated.
The study authors found more than one third of patients (35%) had searched the internet for information on their current problem before attending an ED, with more than half (62%) doing so more than 24 hours before presenting, with symptoms being the most common search criteria (68%).
The median number of searches was three and the median search time was 20 minutes.
The authors found half of patients (49%) regularly searched the internet for health information, and this had net positive effects and was more common in those with e-health literacy.
The majority (80%) said these internet searches helped them better understand their doctor during their consultation, with 81% reporting that it allowed them to ask more informed questions – although 3% of patients disagreed.
Further, 79% of patients reported that the internet-derived health information never or rarely led them to doubt their diagnosis or treatment and 91% said it had had never, or rarely, caused them to change a treatment plan.
Forty-percent of patients said the health searches made them worried or anxious, compared to 30% who said it did not.
“Searching for online health information had a positive impact on the doctor–patient relationship, particularly for patients with greater e-health literacy, and was unlikely to cause patients to doubt the diagnosis by a practitioner or to affect adherence to treatment,” the authors conclude.
“We therefore suggest that doctors acknowledge and be prepared to discuss with adult ED patients their online searches for health information.”