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Is The Internet Eroding Trust In Physicians?

Posted Monday, June 5, 2017 by Tyler Goldberg-Hoss

We all know how much information — good and bad — one can find on an online search. This includes searching for possible diagnoses for our own symptoms (or those of our family and friends).

There are even websites inviting the viewer to log in their signs and symptoms and try to make their own diagnosis. A recent study presented at the 2017 Pediatric Academic Societies showed that exposure to internet information about a child’s symptoms influenced the willingness of the parents to accept their child’s doctor’s diagnosis.

In the study, 1,300 parents were told that a child “had a rash and worsening fever for three days.” They were then divided into three groups, with the first two being shown information on computer screen shots: one with clinical information on scarlet fever and the other with clinical information on Kawasaki Disease. The third group viewed no Internet screenshots.

Afterward, all three groups were told that a physician had diagnosed the child with scarlet fever. When asked about the likelihood of seeking a second opinion, members of the second group (exposed to information about Kawasaki Disease) were significantly more likely to seek a second opinion about the physician’s diagnosis.

The conclusion of the study’s authors was that exposure to clinical information online “primed” the parents to a particular point of view and tendency to take action. Much of this is fairly basic social-psychology: those who are exposed to certain information can have that point of view reflected in subsequent opinions. Malcolm Gladwell recently popularized this concept in the book Blink.

As a medical malpractice attorney, I occasionally receive phone calls from distraught parents who are convinced that their hospitalized child’s medical care is causing harm to the child and they want me, as an attorney, to intervene in the care. I advise them that, as an attorney who brings cases on behalf of those who have been injured, I am not able to involve myself in ongoing medical care. But what is striking is how often the parents have read about some condition on the Internet and are convinced their child’s doctor is not practicing good medicine. The level of paranoia in that situation can be severe.

The conclusion of the pediatric study noted above was the overall trust in a physician’s decisions regarding diagnosis and treatment has been eroded by the parents’ access to Google or other search engines.

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