Why Doctors Should Love Patients Who Google Their Symptoms

Entrepreneur Roni Zeiger says the era of Web MD-driven medical panic is over.
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Reuters

Before Roni Zeiger founded Smart Patients, an online community where patients can crowdsource medical information, he was a full-time doctor. Because of that, he can empathize with doctors who complain about patients who think they can diagnose their symptoms using the Internet.

“Maybe 10 years ago we were in a cultural state, as far as physicians were concerned, where I might say to you in a doctor’s room, ‘Oh shit, this patient just came in with twelve pages of print-outs that he found on Google and Web MD, and he thinks he’s got pellagra.’ I think we’re almost over that,” he said during an interview at The Atlantic Meets the Pacific on Wednesday.

Since Web MD was founded, he says, crowdsourcing has done a lot to improve the medical advice on the Internet. Even though there might be some bad information floating around on the web, people can consult with a broader community to get a second, third, or 30th opinion. “In well-functioning communities, if the question is, ‘How often should I get a CT scan to check for the recurrence of my kidney cancer?’ the 15 people who have looked at that question before and actually studied the data and talked to clinicians – it’s the micro-experts who lead the discussion.”

This is also good for clinicians, Zeiger said. “Let’s take an example. Today, most community oncologists ... have to see lung cancer patients, and melanoma patients, and kidney cancer patients, and sarcoma patients. It is absolutely impossible for them to keep up with how quickly science is changing. It wasn’t possible 10 years ago; today, it’s a joke. All information now that clinicians need to know is recycling at five years."

So, Zeiger says, it helps if people can look elsewhere for medical advice. "What patients are often doing is saying, ‘I just found out I have lung cancer – what else should I know?’ and asking each other in very informed networks. Patients are talking to each about what questions to ask their doctors, and sometimes, how to act so as not to offend.”

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also oversees the National Channel and writes about religion and culture.

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