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4 Strategies for Physicians to Address Patient Self-Diagnosis

Lean in and embrace patients taking a more active role in their care.

The Catch-22 of value-based care is that it requires patients to take a more active role in their health outcomes, which sometimes means patients resorting to looking up their symptoms on Google or WebMD.

Patient self-diagnosis is something all healthcare providers must have strategies to deal with. In an often-cited 2013 Pew Research Center report, 35% of U.S. adults say they have gone online specifically to try to figure out what medical condition they or someone else might have. Today, one in 20 Google searches are related to healthcare, according to the tech giant.

Read: 5 Strategies for Dealing With ‘Problem’ Patients

Yet, according to a 2015 study from Harvard Medical School, online resources supporting patient self-diagnosis often contain inaccurate information. Researchers entered various symptoms into multiple online symptom checkers, which ended up yielding an accurate diagnosis only 34% of the time.

Many providers’ gut reaction is to dismiss patient self-diagnosis outright, but research published in the Journal of Participatory Medicine suggests that patients who self-diagnose are also more likely to comply with provider care plans. For providers, this is an opportunity to further engage patients and achieve better health outcomes.

Here are four strategies providers can leverage to address patients who self-diagnose on the internet.

Tell Patients to Keep Searching Online

This might seem a little counter-intuitive, but providers can actually mitigate many of the problems from patients who self-diagnose by simply leaning into the issue. By encouraging them to continue searching online, you are acknowledging and validating their approach to how they manage their health outcomes. Instead of closing that window for them, leverage their desire for information by throwing it wide open.

Starting with this little bit of mental jiu-jitsu creates the ability for providers to have better success with patient self-diagnosis — allowing for better exam conversations and deeper levels of trust.

Also See: 5 Easy Ways to Boost Patient Satisfaction at Your Healthcare Practice

Provide Patients Reliable Resources

If patients are going to self-diagnose, the best thing providers can do is direct them to websites they know give credible medical information. Sites to suggest might include The Mayo Clinic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, and the American Academy of Family Physicians. All of these sources tend to offer a nice combination of accurate medical information that is easy to read and understand. The National Library of Medicine has a full page of links on finding and evaluating health information online.

Most of these resources can be collected and linked on a medical practice’s website. Share the list with patients via email or link to specific content on social media during flu season or other times throughout the year when self-diagnosis runs high.

Create Your Own Expert Content

Research published in 2017 shows that patients trust information more when content is easy-to-read, well-organized, and comes from authors with medical credentials or other signifiers of authority.

Because of this, it stands to reason that providers should be publishing their own expert content for patients on a website where they control the design and presentation of it. Websites for doctors are notorious for being a missed opportunity for patient engagement and patient marketing strategies. But by producing your own content on a channel you own it will establish yourself as a medical thought-leader.

Publishing your own content is also effective patient marketing because it helps drive better positioning in search results, social media activity, and a better online presence and expanded network. It is the fuel that gives you and your practice the authority and credentials patients are looking for.

Check Out: Blogging 101 for Healthcare Providers

Encourage Patients to Discuss Their Research

The final thing you can do as a provider to address self-diagnosis is to encourage patients to discuss their research with you during the exam. This is your opportunity to provide compassionate care for what a patient thinks they are going through and educate them through their uncertainty and anxiety. Doing so gives you the opportunity to politely counter any research a patient has done that might be misleading, inaccurate, or comes from a questionable source.

Long-term, having these sorts of open and honest conversations will only foster more trust from self-diagnosing patients allowing them to rely more on your medical expertise and advice.

Dealing with patients who self-diagnose requires a shift in mindset. By embracing patients taking an active role in their care and creating strategies around communication, education, and patient marketing, practices can set themselves up for success regardless of what information a patient brings inside the exam room.

Want more tips to drive better relationships with patients? Check out “4 Ways to Empower Patients at Your Healthcare Practice.”

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