THE LAST WORD
How to Handle Misinformation in the Age of Dr. Google
Sometimes the medical information patients find on the internet is correct. But when it's not, we need to practice a new skillset.
Fam Pract Manag. 2020 Sep-Oct;27(5):48.
Author disclosure: no relevant financial affiliations disclosed. Note: Patient names have been changed.
Ryan, a long-standing patient of mine, had become a “frequent flyer” in his old age. If he wasn't calling my office, his wife was calling on his behalf. He wasn't a hypochondriac; he did have legitimate medical problems, including severe bouts of diverticulitis. But his complaints were usually multiple, and this particular month they seemed mostly innocuous.
“What is it this time?” I asked my office manager.
“He says he has air bubbles in his urine,” she said.
“Now that could be significant,” I thought. Some time ago I had a patient who complained of passing gas through his urethra. He wound up with a colovesical fistula, an uncommon complication of chronic diverticulitis that results in an open connection between the colon and the bladder.
When Ryan and Jana came in, I proudly said, “I think I know what's wrong with Ryan.” I was strutting my stuff, having made the diagnosis from a mere phone call, without talking to or examining my patient.
“Yeah,” Jana said, “he has a colovesical fistula.”
“How did you know that, Jana?” I asked.
“Easy,” Jana said, “I just Googled ‘farting through penis’ and it showed up.”
“Did it tell you how to fix it too?” I joked.
It wasn't the first time one of my patients (or their companion) had gone to a search engine for a diagnosis or treatment options, nor would it be the last. It sometimes frustrates me to have to deal with what patients come up with in their internet searches. When it's right on, it can make me feel dispensable. When it's inaccurate, I have to spend time correcting misinformation (but the effort is worth it in the long run). Sometimes all it takes is for me to pull up a review article from UpToDate or American Family Physician, and perhaps send them a link or PDF, which most patients appreciate. The key is to avoid getting defensive or drawn into a debate, and instead just focus on the facts and move on.
When I was a medical student, my attending kept a huge file cabinet full of medical literature culled from peer-reviewed journals. We would go to it whenever we needed cutting-edge information. Today, all that information and more can fit in the palm of our hand. Patients have similar access to medical information, but they don't have our training and experience, which allow us to separate the good information from the bad. Thanks to the internet, we are now truly their partners in care, but I like to think we are the senior partners!
Copyright © 2020 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.
This content is owned by the AAFP. A person viewing it online may make one printout of the material and may use that printout only for his or her personal, non-commercial reference. This material may not otherwise be downloaded, copied, printed, stored, transmitted or reproduced in any medium, whether now known or later invented, except as authorized in writing by the AAFP. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for copyright questions and/or permission requests.
Want to use this article elsewhere? Get Permissions
More in FPM
Related Topic Searches
MOST RECENT ISSUE
Access the latest issue
of FPM journal
LATEST AAFP SUPPLEMENTS
Learn how family physicians are using the person-centered primary care measure and get tips for how to implement it in your practice.
Part one of this two-part supplement series highlights QI processes to reduce vaccine disparities, identifies recommended adult vaccines, and discusses their importance among racial and ethnic minority communities.