You Can’t Visit a Doctor on the Web

Or can you? The double-edged sword of medicine and the Internet

Talk to doctors about the Internet and the public’s constant use of it today — and many doctors, especially the older ones, react with disdain.

While some websites share health and medical information in a well-balanced, well-presented way, others offer little more than infotainment with a medical spin.

Yet many hospitals and physicians have embraced the web and social media quite aggressively, perhaps envisioning a new revenue stream from patients or perhaps trying to harness the future. Data suggests millennials in particular may be using whatever they read on social media to decide what hospitals to go to or which physicians to see.

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Millennials may even be the first generation to seek care via the Internet as opposed to face-to-face meetings with doctors, some people suggest.

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While this may be doable on a number of levels and provides a unique opportunity to better reach patients where they are, social media can be fraught with risks for patients (and physicians, too, if they’re not cautious). Here are a few areas in which the web can be a useful tool when it comes to health and medicine.

1.) An Early Filter
More patients than ever go online to research their diagnosis and treatment options, yet sometimes the information they find isn’t always the most reliable. Unfortunately, keeping websites up to date and accurate takes resources and frequent physician input — not easy or cheap to do. So while you should do some research before you make a phone call or make an appointment, always consider the source of the information you’ve found.

2.) A Forum for Change
Physicians can use social media to make their voices heard, to share health information, and to guide patients toward better health websites. And while we live in an era of health care reform, a lot of decisions are being made by policy makers and politicians who have little clinical training. So it’s vital for physicians to be heard and to share their stories and views in order to have an influence on today’s evolving health care environment. Consumers also need to see that physicians, in many cases, are their best advocates.

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3.) A Promotion of Services
Physicians and other health care providers can promote their practices directly on the web without expensive advertising. But if physicians don’t closely monitor or take care of their platform, the liability risks are quite real. As a physician, I don’t use social media in my personal or professional life. Many malpractice insurers and hospitals actually discourage their employees from discussing patient care unless carefully vetted in order to avoid litigation.

Those risks haven’t stopped some physicians, however, especially those with a more entrepreneurial bent, from promoting their practices on the web. Dr. Sandra Lee (aka Dr. Pimple Popper), for example, is a board-certified dermatologist who rose to fame last year with videos like “Blackheads from Heaven.”

Snapchat also brings people right into the plastic surgery operating room. Dr. Matthew Shulman (@nycpasticsurg) is just one doctor who shows off his work there. While he is proficient in many surgical procedures, he may be best known for his “buttock contouring” and non-surgical renovation of the face and body. Another plastic surgeon who shares his procedures live on Snapchat is Dr. Michael Salzhauser (@therealdrmiami).

In a world of health infotainment, it’s important that truth and knowledge not be drowned out in a sea of irrelevance and falsehood.

Beware the Very Real Challenges, However
There remains a lack of finalized, formal FDA guidelines on the issue of doctors and the web. Health care consumers should talk with their doctors about the health websites they consult and get a list of recommended sites.

Hospital websites tend to be scientifically and legally vetted. They tend to offer forums for patients to discuss issues and for physician moderators to weigh in. Various societies and government agencies like WebMD, the American Diabetes Association, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention adhere to good practices in these ways.

But not all hospitals or professional societies are up to speed — so seek out your physician’s advice.

Health care seems to have a natural connection with the mobile world. People want to research their own issues online — they have been doing so ever since the Internet made it easy. We increasingly share opinions with others, ask for advice, and search for information on the go. In a world of health infotainment, it’s important that truth and knowledge not be drowned out in a sea of irrelevance and falsehood.

Bottom line in all of this: The doctor-patient relationship is more important than ever. That can’t be forgotten.

Dr. Ramin Oskoui, a cardiologist in the Washington, D.C., area, is CEO of Foxhall Cardiology PC.

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