There is a Japanese proverb that says, "If you believe everything you read, better not read."
In this era of the Internet, the wisdom of that proverb seems to ring truer than ever. The World Wide Web and the information explosion that it has engendered means that our patients, families, (and all of us!) have the ability to instantly access material on a dizzying range of topics, including at least some material on just about every medical question or concern we might have.
Our patients can leave an appointment having just been diagnosed, head home, and do a search that will bring up detailed information on symptomology, treatment options, side effects, research articles, even statistics on treatment outcomes and prognoses. In many cases, they can access sites that offer discussion boards with other patients and families dealing with the same diagnosis.
This is a good thing
In part because of this ability to gather data, to connect with others around the world who may be dealing with similar diseases and treatments, and to read professional and lay articles, patients and families are becoming savvier medical consumers. They no longer need to rely solely on medical professionals' personal preferences about how, when, and in what depth to communicate statistical information, prognoses, or a host of other critical issues. They are better equipped to question recommendations, to judge the quality of the care that they are receiving, and to advocate for their needs. They can even research clinical trials and treatment options that may not have been discussed by their team, including alternative or complimentary therapies.
This is not always a good thing
It can be difficult to help patients navigate the medical aspects of the Web. Not all patients are aware of the importance of evaluating the source of a given Webpage or site. Not everyone is aware of how easy it is to put documents on the Web, how easy it is to create whole Websites of information. Not everyone is aware that because there is no oversight, it is the reader who must verify the integrity of what she is reading, who must develop the habit of healthy skepticism, thinking critically about the information that she is finding and the source of that information before accepting it.
When it becomes a bad thing
Even for patients who are seasoned Internet researchers, there is the issue of potential information overload, statistics that are frightening and overwhelming, read without the mitigating factor of a medical professional who can offer the potentially comforting reminder that statistics are most meaningful in the aggregate; that they cannot predict how any given individual will fare.
Some teams handle this unprecedented access to medical information by suggesting that patients and caregivers don't research at all, others remind their patients to ask for clarification on anything that is unclear or upsetting, and many teams simply choose not to address the issue unless it is specifically raised by the patient or caregiver.
How do your teams handle the "information explosion"?