Much has been written about the increasing use of the internet to diagnose and treat medical problems. After all, Dr. Google is such a compliant physician. So available! So full of information! Always willing to offer up one (or 1000) unequivocal diagnoses! It has been estimated that somewhere between 50–75% of all potential patients query the internet prior to seeing their physician, and up to 60% of these seekers report that “the information on the Internet [is] the “same as” or “better than” information from their doctors.” Consequently, some of the challenges associated with using the web for health and medical information gathering include “misinformation due to highly variable quality of Web information, possible exacerbation of socioeconomic health disparities, and shifting of conventional notions of the physician-patient relationship.”
I have to admit that I’ve been pretty skeptical about our increasingly reliance on the web to self-treat our medical problems and acquire health-related information. But I recently heard this NPR segment on parents successfully using the internet to revolutionize treatment of clubfoot. Clubfoot is one of the most common birth defects (often diagnosed in utero), and typically has been treated with an expensive invasive surgery that leads to the buildup of scar tissue and a potential lifetime of pain and arthritis. In other words, a pretty scary diagnosis and treatment option for parents of children not yet born. However, parents profiled in the story successfully utilized the internet to research, utilize and disseminate information about the Ponseti method, a noninvasive technique with far better outcomes. The Ponseti method had been largely ignored prior to the introduction of the web, and yet today is the treatment of choice for clubfoot, recommended by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. And all because of a little digital evangelism.
Reading this story made me consider whether the effects of social media and search engines are quite as straightforward as I imagined. On one hand, yes, they certainly perpetuate misinformation and provide an unfounded yet authoritarian tone to anyone who wishes to provide health and medical advice. But, on the flip side, they provide an ability to connect with others in the same situation, to share information, and to support people with common goals such as lifestyle change or finding an alternative medical treatment. In the long-term, will the advantages outweigh the disadvantages? Over time, can we harness the potential of the internet while restraining the damage? It may be too soon to tell, but perhaps we should ask Dr. Google.