Healthcare in the Information Era: Patients Are Taking Control

I was reading an interesting article the other day that used the term “cyberchondriac.” I couldn’t stop laughing at the apt description of a patient who used the internet to gather information about their health concerns. Cyberchondriacs have been described in the popular media as ranging from those with neurotic excess to hypochondria. In my experience, it is common to have a cyberchondriac as a patient.

In my practice, I describe a cyberchondriac as a patient who does research on their condition or who comes up with a self-diagnosis based on their reading. They often tote a stack of papers and articles with them in to their doctor’s appointment. They usually take up more than the allotted 20-minute time slot per patient, and they usually have a slew of questions regarding their diagnosis. If your diagnosis of them is not consistent with what they have read, they will ask even more questions. Often these are the types of patients who will call your office wanting to speak with you and leaving messages with specific questions.

Most doctors are not big fans of cyberchondriacs. I actually am a big fan of them but just not in my practice. They tend to take up way too much time and really throw off my schedule. Additionally, they often have unrealistic expectations about their prognosis. With that being said, the reason I am a fan of them is that I think everybody should be a cyberchondriac.

Whenever I have a bump or bruise or ailment, I immediately start reading my textbooks or looking up stuff on the Internet. Patients who have this tremendous resource at their hands and do not utilize it place a lot of faith in the medical system and their physicians. I have been on both sides of the treatment table and know that, the more you know and the more you can take control of your care, the better off you will be. Physicians are not always correct, and the system moves very slowly. At every step of the way, it does pay off to be a cyberchondriac and make sure that no one has dropped the ball.

I like to view the medical system as a logistical pathway that ends with treatment, follow-up, and resolution. It’s kind of like when you order something online. A good online store will have a great logistical system and will email you or allow you to check online the status of your order. If there is a delay, you will get an email notice of it. If your credit card expires and they need updated information, they will notify you of this online. And finally, you get that email saying that your order is shipped and that you can look up the tracking number online.

Unfortunately, there is no logistics feedback in the process of medical care. If you have a problem with your knee that requires an MRI, radiologist read of the MRI, follow-up appointment, surgery scheduling, pre-operative lab work, etc., there is no way you can find out how all of this stuff is going. Did your MRI results come back? The only way is to bug the office and keep asking if the doctor got the result. Were your lab results OK? The only way to find out is to call the office or come back for another appointment.

It’s a real cumbersome system, but the cyberchondriac is the one who challenges and demands that the system works better for his own care. Someday this will all change but not until we have a world of cyberchondriacs that demand change. When an office becomes inundated with phone calls and demands for lab results from cyberchondriacs, it will figure out an efficient way to provide feedback on the progress of medical care.

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