How do you diagnose a patient who has turned up to the emergency department?
You check their vital signs, their heart rate, their temperature. You ask them what brought them in today, what they are feeling; you check their prior conditions, medications, allergies. Based on what they say, you order relevant tests; blood is sometimes drawn, x-rays taken.
Research shows that patients who look up their medical problem online before visiting the emergency room can experience better interactions with health care providers. Photo by Andrew Quilty.
Patients have often been discouraged from looking up their symptoms online. But new research, published in the Medical Journal of Australia, has found consulting ‘Dr Google’ before presenting at the emergency department could improve interactions between patients and their treating physician.
A survey of 400 adult patients who presented at emergency departments at St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne and Austin Health between 1 February and 31 May last year found that over a third had looked-up their problem online beforehand.
Of the 190 patients who had done a preliminary internet search, 150 reported they were able to ask more informed questions, communicate effectively, and better understand their health provider.
“Searching [online] is helping patients to characterise what they are feeling,” said Dr Anthony Cocco, a medical intern at St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne and co-author of the study.
“There is a lot of medical jargon that can be hard for patients to grasp, so [researching beforehand] is helping them to express what they are feeling to the doctors and ask questions so we are able to have an informed discussion.”
“This can help during the initial history-taking phase because patients recognise the significance of certain symptoms and will mention them… if you have an uninformed patient, teasing out the symptoms can be quite difficult.”
A majority of surveyed patients looked up their problem online more than twenty-four hours before presenting to the emergency room, as opposed to during the few hours beforehand or while they sat in the waiting room. Younger patients aged 18-30, as well as those with greater e-health literacy, were also more likely to consult the internet before heading to hospital.
The study also dispelled health care providers concerns that looking up a medical problem could interfere with a patient’s treatment: most patients said they would never or rarely doubt their diagnosis or change their treatment plan because of conflicting online information.
“The main downside is that around 40 percent of patients had found searching online had increased their anxiety,” Dr Cocco said.
Previous studies have found some general practitioners react defensively when patients approach them with medical information they found on the internet. But Dr Cocco said this wasn’t the case for a majority of those surveyed, which could be because most patients said they hadn’t told the consulting physician that they had looked up their problem online beforehand.
While only just over 10 percent of those looking up information online trusted what they found on Facebook, Twitter and online blogs, Dr Cocco encouraged all patients to opt for reputable websites like the Better Health Channel, or the Royal Children’s Hospital Guidelines.
He said health care providers should have open discussions with patients about what they have found online and direct them to sites with quality information.
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