Can a patient ever show up at the doctor's office with too much information?
A doctor's essay about medical "Googlers" — patients who research their symptoms, illness and doctors on the Web before seeking treatment — suggests they can. The report, which appeared in Time magazine, was written by Dr. Scott Haig, an assistant clinical professor of orthopedic surgery at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. He begins with a description of a patient he calls Susan, who seems to be clicking on a keyboard as she speaks to him on the phone. "I knew she was Googling me,'' he writes.
Dr. Haig's disdain for her information-seeking ways becomes quickly evident. He describes the woman's child, whom she brings to the office, as "a little monster'' and notes that the woman soon "launched into me with a barrage of excruciatingly well-informed questions.'' Every doctor knows patients like this, he writes, calling them "brainsuckers.''
Susan had chosen me because she had researched my education, read a paper I had written, determined my university affiliation and knew where I lived. It was a little too much — as if she knew how stinky and snorey I was last Sunday morning. Yes, she was simply researching important aspects of her own health care. Yes, who your surgeon is certainly affects what your surgeon does. But I was unnerved by how she brandished her information, too personal and just too rude on our first meeting.
The problem, Dr. Haig notes, is that patients can have too much information and often don't have the expertise to make sense of it. "There's so much information (as well as misinformation) in medicine — and, yes, a lot of it can be Googled — that one major responsibility of an expert is to know what to ignore,'' Dr. Haig writes.
Dr. Haig's essay, however, has riled patient advocates, who believe patients need to arm themselves with information and take charge of their own medical care. Mary Shomon, who runs a popular thyroid disease blog on About.com, recently highlighted the essay on her site, generating angry responses from readers. Ms. Shomon said she thinks many physicians like Dr. Haig are threatened by patients who use Google and other Internet resources to research their own health questions.
"By condemning Googlers, he made it clear that he's threatened by empowered, educated and assertive patients who do their own research,'' said Ms. Shomon. "He can't handle a patient who talks and doesn't just listen. Good patients…are seen and not heard, right?''
Dr. Haig concludes his essay by confessing that he decided not to treat the woman, whom he described as "the queen of all Googlers.''
I couldn't even get a word in edgewise. So, I cut her off. I punted. I told her there was nothing I could do differently than her last three orthopedists, but I could refer her to another who might be able to help.