Thanks to technology, Gary Sullivan enjoys a new kind of relationship with his doctor. If he wakes up with a routine health question, the 73-year-old retired engineer simply taps out a secure message into his doctor’s electronic health records system. His Kaiser Permanente physician will answer later that day, sparing Sullivan a visit to the clinic near his Littleton, Colo., home and giving his doctor time to see those with more urgent needs.
Once you took medical questions directly to your doctor, who advised, tested and treated you. Today, not only are we turning to the Internet for everyday medical information, we’re also generating our own health data: using a smartphone, for example, to investigate a child’s ear pain or monitor blood pressure. We’re learning from our peers online how to cope and find new treatments. Our doctors can keep our records electronically, accessible to us through a patient portal. Some of us can make video visits with doctors, who can offer diagnoses and treatment plans via computer or smartphone.
With all these advances, a traditional paternalism in medicine is changing, too.
“There’s no question that technology is shifting the doctor-patient relationship,” said pediatrician Wendy Sue Swanson, executive director of digital health at Seattle Children’s Hospital.
Susannah Fox, entrepreneur in residence at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, describes a “sea change in communications” over the past 15 years.
“Consumers only used to get a filtered drip of information,” she said. “What the Internet did was pull open that funnel and give people more access — not complete access — to health information.”
Almost three-quarters of American adults use the Internet to search online for health information each year, according to the Pew Research Center. While patients are digging through new information, so are doctors. A “tsunami of knowledge” from hundreds of journals pours over doctors, says Jack Cochran, executive director of the Permanente Federation.
All this information changes the culture. “Doctors say they’re taught to know things that others don’t,” said Dave deBronkart, a cancer survivor and advocate for patient engagement. Today, thanks to online searches and communities, a patient may know about advances before a doctor does.