How to Research Health Information Online
Recognizing My Own Limitations
There are certain situations in my life where I feel really stupid.
One is when CNBC’s Squawk Box senior economics reporter Steve Liesman discusses the bond market. While I recognize the words he uses as English grammar, I find almost every word to be incomprehensible gibberish. Recently, he informed me that “given the Feds propensity towards quantitative easing in Q4 the 10 year yield could hit 3%.”
I think that has something to do with money. I have a suspicion it might be important.
Is that really a car part?
Another situation in which I am humbled and forced to recognize my own ignorance is when I get my oil changed. I am an Obstetrician-Gynecologist. I know nothing about cars. It’s just not my thing.
About half way through the visit, the mechanic comes out with this round thing in his hand. He tells me it’s an “air filter.” Based on my past record at Jiffy Lube, I am due to have it replaced. I realize I do not know the current recommendations for Jeep Wrangler air filter maintenance. The mechanic shows me the filter, but I am unable to determine if the level of grime meets the criteria for replacement.
Being totally honest, I am not even sure it is really an air filter or even a car part.
I am ok with this. I don’t have to know these things.
So I googled it
We all have our areas of expertise. There is nothing wrong with having to rely on others to get through life. I googled the current recommendations for air filters. This was easily accessible material. I verified I was due for a replacement in the near future based on my past history. Research guided my decision making.
I had no misconceptions of knowing more than the mechanic. I researched information to ask better questions and to navigate through an area in my life in which I am uncomfortable. Ultimately, I made the decision based less on my research, but rather in my trust and confidence in the advice of the mechanic.
A doctor visit can feel like a trip to Jiffy Lube
Patients are placed in knowledge gap situations. As a doctor who believes in the power of online patient engagement, I am torn. I want my patients to educate themselves online. I want my patients to read, to learn and to empower themselves.
Patients may inadvertently fall into the trap of the Dunning–Kruger effect — believing they know and understand more than they actually do. The Dunning-Kruger effect demonstrates that people overestimate their ability and knowledge when exposed to a subject. This can be dangerous when dealing with health information. I have fallen into this trap dealing with my own medical issues.
Online health information is widely available
A simple Google search opens a plethora of information on virtually any health topic. The problem is the information is unsorted and unvalidated. The content is hard to interpret in order to take action. Information can be very helpful in some cases. In others, it can be anxiety provoking or flat out wrong.
We must recognize our own limitations
Understanding health information is hard. Science is complicated. Scientific studies often contradict each other. Health questions often beg more questions and not definitive answers. For every topic we Google, there is a PhD who makes a living researching that one question every day. While studying on our own, we must also value and respect health professionals’ years of studying, expertise and experience.
In my spare time, I play soccer. One game I jumped to head the ball into the goal but injured myself on the landing. (At least I scored!) I did my own internet research and self-treated my injury for about nine months. I finally gave up and went to see an Orthopedic physician. It took the doctor 30 seconds to diagnosis a piriformis injury. That diagnosis never occurred to me. In fact, I had to google what the piriformis muscle was when the doctor left the room.
I had fallen into the trap of the Dunning-Kruger effect. One injection later and my injury was cured.
Ask better questions
People say doctors make the worst patients. I know I am a terrible patients. My apologies to all of my doctors. While I will continue to use the Internet as a supplemental tool to augment the provider-patient relationship, I will not use it as a wedge to hinder it. I will use the internet to improve my baseline knowledge and to ask better questions.
My engagement will create a higher level conversation and help me understand the recommendations. I will recognize the content I read may just be the tip of the iceberg. I acknowledge my limitations. Ultimately, I will research to help determine my level of trust and confidence in my healthcare providers.