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How to handle patients who diagnose themselves

There’s a wealth of medical information online, and increasingly patients are tapping it to come up with their own diagnoses. Needless to say, this results in numerous challenges for medical practitioners and office staff.

But how exactly do you navigate the issues that arise from too much information – information that, incidentally, is often incorrect?

First, the facts

The internet has billions of pages. If a person seeks information online, he or she is likely to find more than enough to satisfy any search.

Problems tend to arise, however, with authenticity. Anyone can create a website and post information; this doesn’t mean the content is factual or that the site editors are experts.

Then there is the problem of content aggregation. Websites that aren’t concerned with accuracy often pull information from other sites and simply repost it. The result is that the same content appears at multiple sites, giving the impression that the information has been reported by several sources when in fact it’s from one source.

In the case of medical information, this kind of content sharing is particularly troublesome.

Think about the implications. A patient enters symptoms in a search engine such as Google and multiple items are returned. Clicking on several of them returns the same information. The patient assumes he has checked multiple sources and they all concur.

Unfortunately, this situation is common.

Uninformed patients

An unregulated online medical community combined with uninformed Internet users is a prescription for disaster, or at the very least misdiagnoses.

Add to this people’s inability to correctly identify their symptoms, which is compounded by the power of suggestion. How does this happen?

A website may list several symptoms as indicative of an illness. Even if a person has only one or two of these, it’s not usual, as part of a search for a diagnosis, for him to assume other symptoms are applicable, especially if they are common symptoms. Stomach pain indicative of the illness? “My stomach really hurt on Saturday night,” he says when calling for an appointment. Of course the patient neglects to mention that he ate seven slices of pepperoni pizza on Saturday night.

Where to begin

When a patient calls with symptoms and a self-diagnosis, the first step is to alleviate any concerns because chances are he has associated his symptoms with a dreaded disease.

Begin by letting the patient know that many illnesses have similar symptoms, and that not everything online is accurate.

The next step is to schedule an appointment with a medical practitioner.

If the patient is adamant that he has XYZ disease, you may want to alert the medical practitioner with whom you’ve scheduled the appointment about the patient’s self-diagnosis. Although medical practitioners are familiar with this tendency, it can be helpful for them to know if a patient is more interested in confirming his findings as opposed to finding out what is actually wrong.

Providing resources

Thanks to the vast array of information available online, patients will continue to self-diagnose. Rather than attempt to dissuade them from doing so, you might want to consider pointing them in the direction of reputable resources.

Discuss this with the medical professionals at your practice to find out if they are receptive to the idea – and, if so, how far they are willing to go.

Will you publish a list of medical sites? Will this information be available at the practice website; in the brochure that describes the practice’s services, the one available in the office; or will you create a computer document to distribute as needed?

Sites may include Mayo Clinic’s portal and WebMD, among others. But here again, ask for input from the medical professionals at your practice.

As difficult as it can be to deal with patients who diagnose themselves, it’s important to recognize that their efforts show initiative. These patients have already taken an active role in managing their health. Plus, they are open to receiving and using information.

Even if the practitioners in your office don’t feel comfortable sharing websites prior to a medical appointment, suggest that they use the power of the Internet for information sharing after the visit.

This serves multiple purposes. First, it confirms the diagnosis the patient has received. Second, it provides an opportunity for the patient to obtain additional information. Third, it shows the patient the difference between a legitimate source of information and a random web search. Finally, it allows the patient to become a partner in health care, which is always desirable.

Patients will continue to use the internet to research their medical symptoms and arrive at diagnoses. It’s unavoidable. However, by understanding this tendency, and providing appropriate sources of information, you can minimize the impact these would-be physicians have on the practice. After all, there already is a doctor in the house.

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