Are empowered patients influencing doctors today?

I have recently been investigating the impact that the internet and social media are having on patient-doctor relationships and conversations. It appears that in the 30 years or so that the internet has been in the mainstream, the relationship has been revolutionised by the information made available to patients about various conditions.

The illustrative timeline below shows the way patient-doctor relationships have changed over time.

From the 1700’s right up to the 1980’s patients put their trust in doctors and were at the mercy of their decisions. From 1990 onwards however, the internet and social media appear to have contributed to a radical change in this dynamic.

So what is actually happening today in patient-doctor conversations?

Are empowered patients influencing Doctors?

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the internet and social media are empowering patients but very little to show the impact this is having on doctor-patient conversations.

Today’s patients and caregivers can go online and gather vast amounts of information about conditions, lifestyle choices, current/future treatments, clinical trials and specialist healthcare professionals in their area.

Today’s patients can connect with people like them, people who have the same condition and share information, advice and support. Patients who have had a condition for a long period of time can also share their knowledge and experience with others who have just been diagnosed or are about to start a treatment.

Pew research shows that when patients go to see their doctor, over 70% of them will have previously gone online to find information about their condition and around a quarter (23%) of patients with a chronic condition will have gathered information from others with the same condition.

This clearly indicates that infoPew studyrmation found online is being used by patients but I wanted to understand how this information could potentially influence the discussion outcome and treatment choices. Is knowledge acquired online being shared during conversations with physicians and what is being done with this information?

I chose to focus my research on oncologists because of the many forms of cancer that exist and the expertise required in their field. My hypothesis was that oncologists would be much less likely to be influenced by empowered patients because of the complexity of these conditions.

The research (the online survey powered by MedLIVE) consisted in interviewing a sample of 30 oncologists’ based in the USA who had been in practice for a minimum of 10 years.

To my surprise, the research completely refuted my hypothesis and found that empowered patients are indeed influencing specialist physicians. The sample was small so there is a limit to the conclusions we can draw with any authority, however it was very interesting to find that patients today bring up information they have found online in almost all patient-oncologist discussions and almost all oncologists take action on suggestions made by their patients.

Over 70% of oncologists agreed that the patients they see today are more knowledgeable than patients were 5-10 years ago. So what can we take from this?

This  early evidence  suggests that patients today are more influential than we may have thought, offering new marketing and communication opportunities for pharmaceutical companies who have traditionally focused resources on influencing healthcare professionals.

There is clearly an opportunity for pharmaceutical companies to help specialists and patients by being more patient-centric and sharing more information to contribute to these informed discussions.

There is also an opportunity for pharmaceutical companies to understand more about patients and caregivers and their feelings, thoughts and actions at each stage of their journey through a condition by leveraging social media conversations.

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