There's been a lot of discussion lately about the interaction of patients and physicians via the Internet. Some say the Internet will help improve patient-doctor communication, others say it will only cause greater problems.
This negative prognosis is based on the premise that there is simply too much inaccurate information on the Internet and that physicians will resent patients presenting them with information that comes from "outside" and may be flawed.
Nobody really knows what's going to happen, although my guess is the Internet will enable physicians and patients to communicate better and with increasing frequency. So it was with more than passing interest that I read a recently released study that bears on the question of what the Internet will do for patients and physicians.
The study surveyed online consumers and a focus group of physicians and patients. The results appeared in a newsletter called Harris Interactive Healthcare News and was conducted for ARA Marketing and McKessonHBOC.
Some of the findings addressed patients' concerns, including "forgetting to ask all my questions when I'm with my doctor" (60%); "having to see my doctor in person to ask questions that he or she could answer by telephone or e-mail" (41%); "getting through to someone who could answer my questions" (35%); "providing the same information over and over again each time I go to the doctor's office" (35%); and "not having enough time with my doctor" (29%). About 50% of the online consumers think the Internet will help reduce or eliminate some of the frustrations associated with their visits to physicians.
Other findings suggest that large majorities of the online population would like to receive e-mail reminders about their appointments for preventive care (81%), follow-up e-mails after visits to their doctors (83%) and ability of their doctors to monitor lab results online (84%).
Despite a recent study that suggests otherwise, research indicates that the time patients spend with doctors has shrunk and the amount of face-to-face conversation between patient and doctor only amounts to about three minutes.
That's been my experience, and I know others are increasingly frustrated. One patient said, "I'd prefer to e-mail my doctor with a question and get an e-mail back from him, rather than phoning and talking to a receptionist who leaves a message for the nurse, who calls me back and then asks the doctor, then calls me back with his response, and if I have a follow-up question, she has to call back yet again."
Nevertheless, it is clear that there is a lot of resistance to the Internet from physicians. Most of the reasons are quite legitimate--they relate to reimbursement, medical records privacy and possible malpractice suits.
They also fear that medicine will become too impersonal. One physician put it this way: "I think it would be a shame to manage patients' healthcare on the Internet and to lose the human interaction and contact. How can you build trust in your physician over a computer?"
It's clear that the Internet will provide opportunities to improve the communication between physicians and their patients. But it will take time and patience for physicians and patients to communicate better and more quickly.
Charles S. Lauer