14th November 2023

In the digital age, Google has increasingly become a tool for people to research nearly any topic in order to make more informed decisions. This trend extends to healthcare, where patients often turn to the search engine to better understand their symptoms, conditions, and treatment options. While Dr. Google has empowered them with a wealth of health-related knowledge, it has also introduced a set of challenges to patients, and their communications with clinicians.

Let’s start with the positives

There are currently 5.3 billion internet users worldwide, which amounts to 65.7% of the global population. Dr. Google (a term coined for when people use google as their main source of health information) supports these people with instant access to valuable health information that they may not be able to obtain without it. Being able to go onto your internet browser and type in symptoms to discover potential conditions and treatment options puts patients in more control of their care, and can facilitate more productive conversations with care teams.

Making it easier for patients to access a wide array of health information has therefore led to a more informed patient population. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the general public were even encouraged to use online sources to assess their symptoms and self-triage, while the healthcare industry saw a massive rise in digital forms, chatbots, and virtual care.

With Google, patients are empowered to take a proactive role in their healthcare, which results in improved patient engagement. They can understand their diagnoses, make well-informed decisions about their treatment plans, and contribute in a positive way to consultations.

Too much information, too many choices

Although patients have more access to health information and are more educated, it is often not from credible sources. Health misinformation is a health-related claim that is based on anecdotal evidence, incorrect, or misleading due to a lack of existing scientific research. One of the most significant challenges is the abundance of this type of misinformation on the internet. Patients often encounter inaccurate or outdated information that can lead to unnecessary anxiety or misinformed decision-making.

In the past 20 years we have also seen the rise of social media, which internet users have been increasingly using to seek and post about health and care. One study into the prevalence of health misinformation on social media found that it was the highest on Twitter, and on issues related to smoking products and drugs. However, they also found misinformation on major public health issues, such as vaccines and diseases, was concerningly high as well.

With all this ‘knowledge’ at their fingertips, patients often attempt to self-diagnose their conditions, which can sometimes lead to incorrect conclusions. This can then complicate the patient-clinician relationship when patients present preconceived diagnoses to their healthcare providers and distrust their clinician’s opinion. Unreliably sourced information can create a gap in understanding between patients and clinicians, as patients may struggle to articulate their concerns or questions effectively, leading to misunderstandings or disagreements during medical appointments.

There is also the growing desire for on-demand support and instant responses. Patients are craving that real time connection that they experience as consumers in nearly every other area of their lives. This is an even greater need in a post-pandemic world where health anxiety is at an all-time high, where some people fear misdiagnosis or medical errors and, easy access to advice helps to build up their confidence. The use Dr Google is also linked with increased anxiety and fear which led to the creation of cyberchondria – a clinical phenomenon in which repeated Internet searches regarding medical information result in excessive concerns about physical health.

How to empower patients and enhance communications

Curated Chatbots: Ensuring your patients can get instant access to reliable NHS-approved advice and support is essential. This is demonstrated at London North West University Healthcare NHS Trust, where 23% of patients accessing their chatbot did so out of normal operating hours, getting immediate answers when they would usually have had to wait for a reply.

Promote Digital Literacy: Healthcare providers should play a role in educating patients about reliable sources of medical information online. Teaching patients to critically evaluate the information they find can help mitigate the impact of misinformation.

Improved Patient Education Materials: Healthcare organisations must provide patients with easy-to-understand and accurate information about common health concerns and conditions, which can easily be done by providing links to verified sources within portals and on their websites.

Digital Pre-attendance Prep: Patients attending hospitals for outpatient appointments often require pre-attendance instructions such as bowel prep drinks or fasting, and with colonoscopies for example, a UK average of over 5% of procedures do not go ahead as planned due to poor prep. At King’s College Hospital, the introduction of innovative SMS prep support including video links and automated timed reminders resulted in a 28% reduction in failed appointments.

Use of Electronic Health Records (EHRs): Integrating EHRs with patient portals can facilitate better information sharing between patients and healthcare providers. Patients can input their findings and questions, which clinicians can review before appointments.

Open Communication and Patient Initiated Follow Ups: Clinicians should encourage patients to share their research and concerns openly so that they can feel heard and respected. Embracing a digital-first PIFU enables patients to get in touch when they need support, saving them from attending in person solely to address questions about their condition. This approach improves experience and prevents patients looking for rapid or convenient support through unverified online sources for their health information.

Ensuring Dr. Google is a force for good

Google has revolutionised the way patients access and engage with health information. While it offers numerous benefits, the challenges related to misinformation and self-diagnosis are significant. To enhance patient to clinician communications in the age of Google, healthcare providers and patients must work together to foster a more informed, transparent, and effective healthcare journey. By promoting digital literacy, improving patient education materials through patient portals, and encouraging open and honest discussions, the impact of Google on patient to clinician communications can be more positive and constructive.