Dr. Shah adjusted his spectacles as he looked in disbelief at the man in front of him. His patient was probably in his twenties and looked distraught. He had come with mild headache since a few hours and Dr. Shah, with years of experience under his belt, had prescribed him the necessary medications. But what the young man said to him gave the doctor a bigger headache than his patient. “The internet says I may have a brain tumour,” the man wailed. No reassurances seemed to calm him down so ultimately, Dr. Shah had to advise him a battery of tests. The old doctor reminisced his early days of practice where the patient’s only source of medical information was the doctor himself (barring those few over-inquisitive ones that actually took to reading medical textbooks). In his decades long practice, there wasn’t much he hadn’t seen. But this age of internet seemed to throw a curveball at the him who did not really wish for this interference so late in his practice. He asked the young man how he had been referred to him. “Oh! I looked it up online. You have received some great ratings and reviews.” Dr. Shah did not feel like a reputed doctor anymore. He felt more like a commodity, a service provider who received ratings, exactly like a product on Amazon or a service on UrbanClap. Gone were the days when other doctors referred patients to him who came with folded hands and utmost faith. His word was no longer final, with endless information being just a click away. “Internet was a boon without doubt, but will it be a curse for the doctor-patient relationship?”, he wondered.
The age of internet has drastically changed the world with everything at the click of a button be it commodities, services, information, ideas, conversations and even friendships. There has often been a continuous debate over whether it is a boon or a bane. It had affected every aspect of life in a positive as well as a negative way. The same can be said in case of the healthcare system as well.
ON THE BRIGHTER SIDE…
Some obvious benefits of the use of internet were seen during the COVID-19 pandemic wherein online consultations helped bring the doctor to the patient when social distancing was the need of the hour. It has also facilitated people in remote areas to gain access to specialists in metropolitan cities, especially when it comes to seeking treatment for malignancies, autoimmune or other rare diseases. Online support groups help patients with similar conditions get together that is useful for creating better awareness amongst patients while taking informed decisions and also provides emotional support, especially in terminal and debilitating conditions. Artificial intelligence has the potential to ensure smooth functioning and increased precision of hospital systems by providing faster access and triage to patients.
This massive ocean of information has helped patients to make well informed choices pertaining to their health and 80% of internet users seek health information online. This awareness among patients also plays a role in increasing accountability among doctors.
So then, what is the difference between doctors and the internet? With ChatGPT patiently answering our stupidest questions for free, would internet replace the doctor?
THE FLIP SIDE…
40% doctors believe that use of the internet may damage doctor-patient relationships. While searching about one’s condition online is not wrong, consistently questioning and verifying a doctor’s advice may eventually translate into lack of trust between the doctor and the patient and may force doctors to practice medicine more defensively than passionately.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, free access to internet was a major cause behind the spread of misinformation, be it any unscientific methods of prevention and treatment, to spreading panic about the disease. To make matters worse, standards guiding appropriate use of internet and social media for education are still in their infancy. Patients end up falling for click-baits rather than authentic information. This misinformation may prove to be harmful especially for those patients who tend to self-medicate, which is worsened by the lack of regulations pertaining to over-the-counter sale of drugs.
DOCTOR OR DOTCOM?
While we, as doctors can take measures to prevent this by actively authenticating sources of information, preventing a patient from relying excessively on the internet still seems to be a far-fetched dream. But somewhere we, as healthcare providers, need to make patients realise that what they get from the internet is information, but what the doctor has is knowledge, wisdom and experience. Be it through effective communication and confidence in wielding their knowledge, it is imperative to show patients that internet can only aid healthcare, but not replace the very core of it.
When patients come to a doctor with an ailment, they may be equipped with information, but what they actually want is the reassurance of healing. So, what doctors can actually do better than the internet is show that they care. And this is how a patient would share the connect with a doctor while disconnecting from the internet.
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