When I was a girl, there was no internet. Nor was there any question that the doctor knew best. Before I visited the GP, my mother made sure I was washed, brushed and dressed in my Sunday best. Doctors had spent years poring over dusty textbooks, acquiring knowledge the rest of us could only dream of, and their word was law.
These days it's very different - put in a single key word into 'Google' and you can read a million articles about it without getting up from your desk. That means any of us can know as much as the doctor, doesn't it? In fact, the doctor has to keep up with so many conditions that we're probably more up to date than they on 'our' problem, right?
The reality is somewhere in the middle. Long gone, thank goodness, are the days where the doctor believed that only they knew the answer and that the patient was there to be instructed and patronised. Every new GP spends years learning how to work together with their patient to find the best solution for their personal circumstances. Every GP-in-training spends large parts of their hospital, and particularly their GP training, learning about consultation skills. When I first started training as a GP, there were 'consultation models', but they were basically a list of things the doctor should do TO the patient. For instance, one advised that after taking a history and examining the patient, "The doctor, and occasionally the patient, discuss management (of the problem)". Today it's all about exploring the patient's concerns and beliefs then reaching common agreement on how to proceed.
But some patients believe they aren't in a partnership at all. It's their body and they know best. The 'expert' who sees the GP as a barrier to getting treatment they've found on the internet is never going to get that grown-up conversation where doctor and patient work together.
Patients come and see me with chest pain every day. The majority have simple muscle strains or panic attacks. But 'symptom sorter' checklists all have to list heart attack and lung cancer as possible causes of chest pain. Once you've read that, are you really going to look objectively at the less worrying causes? Not if you're human. So while I recommend the internet on a daily basis for patients to find out more about a condition I've diagnosed, I would urge anyone with a hypochondriac tendency (and I include myself) to be very wary of 'Googling' symptoms.
Miracle cures and scare stories - where the pen is more dangerous than the sword
One of the great problems with the internet is that it's almost entirely unpoliced - pretty much anyone can write anything on it, and they do. I see patients on an almost daily basis who have been promised miracle cures, or convinced the medicine I've prescribed is going to kill them in their beds, because of the internet. Some of them are frankly cruel - I've seen several desperate patients with cancer prepared to pay thousands for coffee enemas several times a day, because of a persuasive sales pitch on the internet. Mad? No - just vulnerable and scared.
patient.info - the GP's secret
On the plus side, the internet means that GPs and practice nurses across the country have access to the latest information for patients at the click of a button. The patient information website patient.info is the second most visited site in the country (after NHS Choices) by patients - it gets an astonishing 1.2 million 'hits' a month from GPs and practice nurses. Seeing the GP when you're ill can be stressful and you often don't remember all the information you get. patient.info has thousands of patient information leaflets, all written by GPs specifically for GPs and their patients.
How do I know the information is reliable?
Find a reliable site that works for you. A website that ends '.edu' is run by a school or university. NHS choices (www.nhs.uk) is all written in patient-friendly language, but may not have more in-depth information for the expert patient. patient.info has both information for patients and for doctors, which many of my patients use if they want 'small print' information. They also have links on each page to charities and support organisations which deal with 'your' condition. National UK charities often have really well developed websites, with a host of information on the condition they're there to support, as well as web-rooms where you can link up with other people who have similar experiences.
Help your doctor to help you
Medicine is a fast-moving world, and no doctor has time to keep completely up to date with every new change. If you hear about a new development, a diagnosis that you think applies to you or a new treatment option, speak to your doctor about it. If they know all about it, they'll be happy to talk through how it relates to your case. If they don't, they'll have access to specialists who can give advice on whether it relates to you. It may help them to help not just you, but other patients too.
With thanks to 'My Weekly' magazine where this article was originally published.
Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.