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The Medical Misinformation Epidemic: Our Patients Deserve Better

Technology has allowed us to get whatever information we want right at the tips of our fingers. Yet, it sometimes seems that people are more misinformed than ever when it comes to medical conditions and treatment.

Although my practice is primarily focused on surgical correction of spine disease, you might be surprised at the number of patients I see who have been misdiagnosed or otherwise misinformed about their health. The amount of misinformation out there is alarming.

I’ve grown weary of “Internet, MD” and wish he was held back from graduating medical school.

Here’s why: In your favorite search engine, type in the words “breast pain”.

Because many search engine results are linked to algorithms set by A) keyword entries typed by the consumer, and B) advertisers’ willingness to bid on a keyword based on “cost per click,” chances are “Breast Cancer” will populate the results on page 1! However, the majority of women with pain in the breast region DO NOT HAVE BREAST CANCER.

Let’s use an example: A new mother breastfeeding her baby is interested in learning on why her breasts are painful and swollen. She goes to a search engine and types in “breast pain.” There is an overwhelming chance that her condition is either a normal occurrence when beginning the breastfeeding process, or some breast ducts serving as passageways for the breastmilk are clogged. Now, with a heightened sense of fear, our new mother is convinced her diagnosis is breast cancer! Fortunately, that’s extremely unlikely to be the case, but she is now extremely anxious that she may have this disease!

Certainly, the internet is a major contributor to the misinformation patients receive. Some of the information online isn’t being regulated for accuracy, and this can be especially dangerous as it relates to a person’s health.

However, the problem doesn’t just lie with the internet. I’ve seen many patients who were misdiagnosed by medical professionals that they trusted. There may be many factors at play, but in many cases, it comes down to the doctors not taking the time to really listen to their patients.

We may not be able to rid the world of inaccurate medical information, but we can work together as doctors and patients to combat medical misinformation.

How Doctors Can Fight Misinformation

Being a doctor does not make a person inhuman. Mistakes happen. However, we owe a responsibility to our patients to listen, pay close attention, and do everything in our power to help those patients get the care they need.

A common theme that I’ve noticed is that doctors aren’t spending enough time with their patients. I’ve seen many patients who have been misdiagnosed and misinformed. Usually, all it takes is a meaningful conversation with these patients to see that they were misinformed. The problem is, many doctors aren’t taking the time to get to know their patients, so they are missing out on information that is valuable to the diagnostic process.

I’m not saying that these doctors don’t care about their patients–there are a lot of factors affecting the time spent with patients. Some doctors are overworked, burnt out, and under pressure to see as many patients as possible during office hours. Technology can also get in the way; when doctors have to spend most of the appointment entering information into a computer, they often miss out on making a personal connection with the patient.

As doctors, the best thing we can do for our patients is to take the time to listen to our patients–and actually hear what they are saying. The diagnostic tests and imaging are only part of the equation; we need to gather information on what the patient is experiencing to provide the best diagnosis and treatment plan.

Sometimes, that means referring the patient to another physician who better take care of their needs–and that’s okay. It’s about doing what’s best for the patient. That is what ultimately helps you build trust in the patient community.

How Patients Can Get Accurate Information

As we are all well aware, the amount of false information on the internet is rampant. It’s great that patients have access to information to be able to educate themselves, but it’s a double-edged sword. Patients can often be mislead by false information because there is no regulation of online medical information.

I want my patients to be well-informed about their conditions and treatments. I’m happy to explain and answer any questions my patients may have. I always encourage patients to seek information from a trusted healthcare professional, rather than the internet. All too often, online medical information is more focused on marketing than it is on providing helpful information.

However, if you must search online, there are a few rules of thumb to go by:

  • Get your information from a reputable, peer-reviewed source. Look for content that cites reputable medical studies from multiple sources to support claims.
  • Content that heavily pushes a particular procedure or promises a particular result should be avoided. Look for content that is neutral, helpful, and explains all treatment options and possible outcomes.
  • Get your information from multiple sources if you choose to look online. Never regard a single source as absolute fact. You’ll learn more by consulting multiple sources, and you’ll often find that there are differing medical opinions and indications for different conditions.

To that point, I also encourage patients to seek a second opinion, especially when the diagnosis has the potential to be life-altering. Sometimes, critical details can be overlooked, and it could make a big difference in the outcome of your treatment. As a patient, you should always explore all of your options if you are able.

If we work together, doctors and patients can combat the negative information. Patients should not settle for subpar medical care or inaccurate information, and doctors should take the time to really listen to their patients’ needs.

Only then will we achieve better health outcomes for everyone.