The Wall Street Journal has a piece penned by Benjamin Brewer, M.D., about the effect that the online availability of medical information – and specifically, diagnostic information – is having on traditional Western medicine.
The essence of the piece is this: the proliferation of general medical information has, for some people, started a wave of self-diagnosing, which oftentimes puts them at odds with their doctors.
This isn’t a case, though, of patients solving their own problems. In fact, some doctors are facing the very real situation where patients, armed with just enough info to make themselves dangerous, are disputing physicians.
As a physician, I’m not troubled by the autonomy of the informed patient. What troubles me is the proliferation of the partially informed patient and, frankly, the misinformed patient – the patient who crosses the line from Internet-educated patient to cyberchondriac.
My impression is that people believe more of what they read than what I tell them. It seems that traditional Western medicine based on scientific evidence is less and less trusted by the general public. Meanwhile, some dubious theory from the Internet will be swallowed hook, line and sinker nine times out of 10.
Now, Brewer isn’t trying to defend his position as a well-paid (assumedly) doctor. In fact, he repeatedly says that well-informed patients make the process of healing much easier. And, having just experienced a successful cancer treatment with my uncle and an unsuccessful cancer treatment with my best friend’s mother, I can say that having access to information about what was going on made each of the situations much less stressful.
However, when people use communication tools such as the Internet as the definite source of anything in their lives, there are bound to be – well, unforeseen and unfortunate consequences. The role of digital information has only made the information-gathering process easier; it hasn’t fundamentally changed the ways in which we must process all of that information.
Too often, we tread down one, well-worn path until we reach a conclusion that we had already determined was the proper one. The Internet makes that easy to do; but it makes it just as easy to deviate from that original path – as many times as one chooses – until there is a more realistic and well-rounded answer.