The Doctor-Patient Relationship In The WebMD Era

Date Posted:10 October 2016 

Patients have never had greater access to medical data. For centuries, doctors have been used to consulting with people who have either no or minimal knowledge about their personal health and anatomy.

With the explosion of apps for mobile devices and websites devoted to providing medical information, patients are exerting more and more control over their own health – and in some cases their diagnosis.

An old problem in a new form

Self-diagnosis of medical problems has been present in the doctor-patient relationship since the time of Hippocrates. Self-diagnosis can be considered to include anything from a vague indication that the patient believes they have an infection to an entrenched belief that they definitively have a specific condition and are free to dictate their treatment, irrespective of what the physician recommends.

In many cases, the patient seeking out additional information can be like pouring oil on embers. While far from universal, one in five people said that reading medical information relating to an undiagnosed condition always or often led to an escalation in their concern[1]. Similarly, two in five people said that interacting with the web led to an increase in medical anxiety, while half said it reduces anxiety[2]. While that second number seems encouraging, falling levels of anxiety about a person’s health can be as harmful as rising anxiety. Inaction for what could be a serious condition can be just as detrimental to a person’s quality of life as excessive action on a mild or non-existent condition.

Helping your patients understand the importance of a professional diagnosis

All of this is not to remove the patient’s judgement and decision-making from their own health. Patients are still entitled to exercise control over what is done to their bodies and when, but this usually takes the form of refusing or deferring treatment the patient has deemed to be undesirable.

Where the line must be drawn is where the patient insists on a course of treatment that the doctor deems unhelpful or potentially harmful, or worse, intrudes into the doctor-patient relationship of another person. The undermining of biomedical authority and trust in the expertise of physicians has resulted in many people embarking on harmful or superfluous lifestyle changes or courses of participant-led treatment, most popularly eliminating or restricting gluten intake[3].

That said, patients who do come into the clinic having done their own research should be treated seriously. In situations where medical imaging is not available or not necessary, doctors are primarily reliant upon the information that the patient provides. Patients entering with self-diagnoses can provide a wealth of data for doctors to interpret, examine and potentially dismiss. It is important that doctors acknowledge the patient’s search for knowledge and see their role as a collaborator with the patient on their health, as this can lead to a more congenial relationship that can lead to greater benefits for the patient’s health[4]. Doctors may also recommend reputable resources which patients can reference in future.

Doctors must simultaneously avoid dismissing a patient’s own ideas about their health whilst continuing to stress the importance of a professional diagnosis. If you’re looking for accessible teaching resources for your clinic, contact Mentone Educational to learn more.


[1] White, R. W., & Horvitz, E. (2009, November). Experiences with web search on medical concerns and self diagnosis. In AMIA.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Moore, L. R. (2014). “But we're not hypochondriacs”: The changing shape of gluten-free dieting and the contested illness experience. Social Science & Medicine, 105, 76-83.

[4] McMullan, M. (2006). Patients using the Internet to obtain health information: how this affects the patient–health professional relationship. Patient education and counseling, 63(1), 24-28.

Comments (1)

That's really thinki

4 February 2017
That's really thinking at an imvepssire level

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