Notes from a physician:

How Doctors can use Online Content to Improve a Patient’s Treatment

by | Oct 17, 2019 | Communication

Online Improves Treatment

Access to medical information from a reputable source can alter a patient’s perception of their illness, the treatment and in the long term, improve compliance.

In my experience as a neurosurgeon, I am often faced with a dilemma: ensuring that patients have enough information to fully understand their medical conditions and treatment, whilst at the same time, having to filter through the loads of online medical content presented to me by patients. This can potentially be a source of frustration for patients and the health care professional alike. But, the right type of information, presented in the right way, can be extremely useful.

The sheer abundance of online content has dramatically changed the way people now consume information in general.

In this sea of information (and dis-information), finding accurate information from a reputable source is simultaneously becoming more difficult and is of greater consequence than ever before. This is especially important with medical content.

Being diagnosed with a medical condition and undergoing the associated treatment can be a distressing experience for a person. An illness not only affects the patient’s health directly, but also influences the way they go about their daily activities, their occupation and can place a strain on family or social life. In addition, it can also radically affect their perception of future prospects in each of these areas.

Good (i.e. sensible) online medical content can be of benefit in these key areas:

1) Raising awareness:

  • Patients may not even be fully aware that they have an illness at all. Good online medical content can assist in interpreting symptoms in a responsible manner.
  • Patients may not be aware of all of the treatment options available to them, especially with medical device and pharmaceutical technologies advancing at such a rapid rate.
  • Disease processes often have different subtypes, each with differing prognoses and treatments.
  • Information on preventative measures or medications can be collected, presented and updated much easier through an online platform.

2) Putting the diagnosis into context:

The immense volume of scientific research available on the internet can often be overwhelming for patients. Helpful online medical content should:

  • Break down the information into “smaller, easily digestible” portions allowing the patient to fully understand the information.
  • Minimise medical jargon – using language which can be easily understood.

An illness often represents a point on a spectrum of a disease process or may be subject to a medical grading system. Accurate online content aims to better educate the patient as to the severity and implications of their specific diagnosis in this respect.

To make matters worse, the vast array of treatment options presented on the internet can range in anything from standard therapies to experimental research to just plain ineffective and dangerous options. Applying the correct context in this regard can inform the patient about potential treatment options which are regionally accessible, have a solid scientific track record and often more cost-effective.

3) Improving compliance:

As a neurosurgeon, one of my greatest challenges is encouraging treatment compliance, especially when the medications are known to have some adverse effects. Patients who have acquired relevant medical information from a reputable source are more likely to understand their disease and the nature of their treatment, such as:

  • Duration of treatment, especially if the effect of their medication is delayed (i.e. a drug which requires increasing doses over time before its full effectiveness is attained).
  • Disease progression: a situation where a higher dose is required over time to obtain similar results.
  • Short comings of treatments such as unintended adverse effects, partial effectiveness or the additional need for ongoing rehabilitation or auxiliary medical services (e.g. physiotherapy, etc.)

Treatment compliance is usually enhanced in patients who have already acquired this type of knowledge. Online medical content is an invaluable resource in this respect.

4) Alleviating a patient’s psychological stress:

Receiving a diagnosis can often be a shocking event, especially if the disease is severe or the diagnosis unexpected. As such, it is not uncommon for patients to become emotionally overwhelmed upon receiving this news and may be unable to fully comprehend the exact nature of the diagnosis. In fact, on several occasions, I have myself (understandably) having to repeat an explanation (often more than once) after delivering distressing news during a medical consultation.

Having an online resource readily available can allow the patient to learn more about the diagnosis and treatment after they have had time to process the emotional shock.

In addition, patients can often re-visit the website or blog as their treatment progresses or the condition changes.

Social support can be facilitated via links to online support groups or official medical societies and foundations.

5) Analysis and facilitating of treatment success

A medical website can provide downloadable resources or tools which can allow a patient to document the frequency of specific medical events (e.g. a seizure diary) or the severity of a medical occurrence (e.g. a daily rating for mental health or mood problems). These can then be used by a health care professional directly or remotely to evaluate treatment success and make adjustments accordingly. A prime example would be in the treatment of epilepsy, where doctors can use these tools to monitor compliance and individualise treatment: we can adjust dosages to reduce seizures and prevent drug side-effects.

In addition, these resources or tools can provide patients with a semblance of control over their diagnoses and treatment regimens.

A downloadable tool or printable document can also be used to remind patients of their treatment regimen especially if it is a complex therapy, further enhancing compliance. It can also provide useful tips or “life-hacks” for dealing with a disease-related impairment.

The pitfalls of online medical content: “Dr Google” and the value of a reputable source.

The sight of a patient walking into their consulting room carrying a wad of pages printed from the internet is enough to have most doctors pulling out their hair. Most health care professionals actually respect the idea of patients taking responsibility for their own treatment. Instead, the frustration comes from having to explain questionable information obtained from dubious sources or having to field questions regarding information that has clearly been taken out of context. For example, patients have often asked about the use of stem cells in the treatment of spinal cord diseases. With all of the media attention that stem cell treatment gets, this is not exactly surprising. But, even though this is an exciting field of research, it’s current real-world application remains largely experimental.

This is where the value of accurate medical content from a reputable source really becomes apparent.

In that case, online medical content becomes an asset: providing knowledge in the appropriate context which patients desire, facilitating treatment compliance and alleviating much of the emotional stress associated with a disease.

About the author:

Online Improves Treatment

Dr Shamil M. Gowan [MBBCh (WITS), FC Neurosurg (SA), MMed Neurosurg (WITS)]

Specialist Neurosurgeon

Junior Lecturer, Dept. of Neurosciences, University of the Witwatersrand 

Having obtained extensive experience as a clinical neurosurgeon in both the private and public sector, Dr Gowan has developed a unique understanding of neurological conditions and their impact on patients and their families across a wide socio-economic spectrum. His particular areas of interest include the rapidly advancing fields of neuro-vascular conditions and the intricacies of management of base of skull tumours.

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