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GPs should not feel threatened by patients performing online health searches

Searching for health information online improves a patient and GP’s mutual understanding of symptoms and diagnosis

Ingrid Torjesen

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

GPs should not feel threatened by patients searching the internet for health information prior to a consultation, a study published online by BJGP Open has concluded.

Around two thirds of patients are believed to search for information on their symptoms and potential diagnosis online before a GP consultation.

This behaviour often leads to doctors 'feeling threatened' and that their 'professional expertise has been disregarded, the study authors noted, and that many tend to ignore or contradict the e-information patients bring to the consultation.

Researchers in Belgium assessed the impact of using the internet to look up health conditions and ailments on subsequent consultations with their GP by collecting data on 718 Flemish patients aged 18 to 75. More than half of patients reported having more confidence in their GP after searching online. However, two thirds said they did not feel reassured by their internet search and three in 10 said they felt worried after the information that their search had brought up. Older patients were more likely to go to the doctor after the internet search, while  younger responders were more likely to report feeling worried by the information they had found. People who consulted the internet for information on specific complaints were more likely to report feeling reassured.

The researchers concluded that patients usually made an appointment with their GP after the internet search. The search usually did not lead patients to distrust their GP and most GPs described positive effects of the online search behaviour on the consultation.

The emerging use of the internet for searching health information, commonly referred to as 'Dr Google', should not be seen as a threat by GPs and leads to a better mutual understanding of the symptoms and diagnosis. However, RCGP chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard has advised patients to exercise caution when searching the internet for health information. 'We encourage all of our patients to take an active interest in their own health, and high quality, unbiased health websites such as NHS Choices, which are approved by clinicians and contain reliable information, can be really useful for patients,' she said. 

'But in the same way, unverified websites may give out misleading, superfluous or incorrect information, and cause our patients needless worry or conversely provide inappropriate reassurance. This could then lead to them into booking an unnecessary appointment with their GP, at a time when general practice is already struggling to cope with soaring patient demand in recent years, or not seeking advice when its actually appropriate to do so. 

'We would certainly advise caution about patients using "Dr Google" to diagnose themselves – searching the internet is no substitute for a discussion with a GP as we are highly trained to take into account the physical, psychological and social factors affecting a patient’s health and wellbeing when making a diagnosis.

''If a patient has consulted a reliable site and is still worried about their health, they should seek advice from their GP practice or local pharmacy.'

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