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How to Handle Patients' Online Research

More patients are entering the naturopathic clinics armed with “health” information they found online, often requesting those treatment options. What should NDs do when handed information from the internet?

It’s the golden age of digital communications with more people getting their news and information online than ever before. Patients and their families are searching the internet about their conditions and treatment options in an effort to educate themselves on matters affecting their lives and loved ones.

Many health care providers are divided on whether this is a positive or negative trend. Some say use of the internet increases patients' basic understanding of medicine while others say online information can often be incorrect or misleading, creating "false hope" or added anxiety for patients.

The main problem with the internet: There is no regulation or validation of online material — anyone can post information on any topic. For your patients, it can be very difficult to distinguish fact from fiction. So, what should a physician do when handed the results of a patient’s internet search? Here are some do’s and don’t’s to help you handle the situation appropriately:

Don’t immediately discredit the information presented.

Patients often have more time to spend online than you do to learn about new drugs, clinical trials or breakthrough treatments. There have been reported cases where information found online by a patient turned out to be critical to successful treatment and ultimate outcome. In some cases, the information was life-saving.

Don’t refuse to review the information.

If you immediately see by the title that the information is truly off the mark, tell the patient, "From the title, I don't think this applies to you, but I'll be happy to look it over later." If the material you chose to disregard without review was later deemed to be valid and something that could have positively affected the patient's  outcome — you could be found negligent for failing to allow access to that treatment.

Do advise the patient that you will review the information.

Let them know you will take the time to determine if the source is credible and if it applies to the patient’s condition or treatment.

Do let the patient know your findings.

Keep your patient informed as to what you discover about the value of the information, and keep a copy of the material in their file, along with your notes. For example: 8/1/2021 — rec’d article from patient for review. 8/7/21 — discussed article with patient and why it’s not a viable treatment option for him.

Do routinely ask your patients about their online health research.

Offer guidance about using reliable sources, checking the correct “keyword” in their searches and verifying the sources and dates of materials.

Do provide educational material.

Providing professional guidance on how to conduct quality online research for health information can be helpful for every patient. Consider keeping such materials in your patient waiting area.

Do adhere to your state’s telemedicine laws.

Make sure that you inform the patient that links and internet information emailed to you will take some time to review. Quick turnaround is fine for a “chat” but not for medical advice or for considering health information. While you don’t want to discourage patients from discovering useful information, it is important to set boundaries. It can be helpful to tell them you will discuss it at their next visit

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