The internet is full of health and medical information. Patients can get lost in this plethora of data, both science-based and snake-oil focused. Some mythological medical “cures” can sound hopeful to the sick and suffering while more scientific sources seem unsound. So, where is a patient to find the most accurate and current education in this age of Doctor Google? Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to this question and the simple fact is that there need to be better resources available.

When writing patient references, many recommend the authors to aim at a sixth grade reading level. But, have you talked to a sixth grader recently? My son read the original Moby Dick when he was in third grade. Many health resources are written at a Sesame Street level. Yes, we need material that is readable for all people. But, the intelligence of these people is often underestimated in doing so. Patients want to know everything, even if they don’t understand it. If there is a genetic defect that can possibly cause their disease, they want to know what it might be. They may not understand the genetics behind genetic mutations, but they have a scientific knowledge they can now search, whether they do so through Doctor Google or their own personal physicians.

How can patient educational materials be made more meaningful?

  • Patient educational materials need to be kicked up several reading levels.  Patients are educated consumers and are reading many sources of information. When they find more educated sounding references from less dubious sources, it is easy to think that those are the smarter information base. With all the wrong information available, we are competing to get the correct information into patients’ hands.
  • Materials need to be more inclusive. Many references try to keep the information very basic. But, in doing so, relevant information can be over-looked. Maybe most patients don’t want to know every genetic mutation that can lead to breast cancer. But, some do. It is better to put in too much information where the patient can decide what they want to consider than allowing a missed opportunity to give a patient  facts they may want or need. Not all diabetics want to know how incretins and other neurohormonal factors work. But sources should be readily available for those who do.
  • Materials need to be more current. Much patient educational materials are out-dated. In fact, many are written and then never again updated. Medical discoveries are being made all the time. If we ignore that, our material simply becomes history and patients will move on to more current sources, whether they are scientific or not.
  • Materials need to be more graphic. We have all heard the phrase “a picture is worth a 1000 words”. And it is true. Explaining how high cholesterol is harmful may not be as effective as showing a patient a picture of a clogged artery. Many of us are using graphics in our every day online communications. If you doubt this, just go to Facebook or twitter and check out the GIF bar.
  • Materials need to be free of commercial influence. If you are reading health information on any site that is also trying to sell you products, that site is not evidence-based. It is a commercial site for profit. People are paid to write health information that sounds good and to try to convince you to buy their product. Likewise, if pharmaceutical companies produce patient educational materials, they need to not contain marketing for any of their products. Years ago, this was not the case but under the Sunshine Act, this is now the law. In the past, these companies used to be a big source of patient education materials. However, these products have largely vanished.
  • Materials need to be written by experts. Many people are writing health-related topics these days.  It is easy to do a scientific literature search and find material. However, these results need to be interpreted and held up to the standard of current medical practice. Some medications are used off-label. Some medications are not recommended to be used for their intended purposes except in extreme circumstances. Only an expert will know the current standard of medical practice.

Doctor Google may be the most knowledgable doctor ever, but possessing large data bases does not equate to wisdom. Anyone can pontificate on the intricacies of healthcare, but not everyone can do so giving evidence-based facts. Unless, those responsible for producing patient education step up their game, Doctor Google will continue down the path of poorly educating the masses.


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© 2017, Linda Girgis MD. All rights reserved.

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4 thoughts on “Patient Education in the Age of Doctor Google

  1. Linda,
    You nailed it! Some of the brochures handed to patients are even on par what one can learn on Dora the Explorer. As you pointed out, the reason for that lies in underestimating the intelligence, knowledge, curiosity, and educational level of patients.
    To your list of six points, I’d like to add a # 7: Provide patients with clear steps to be taken to rectify their condition. I am referring to for e.g., the triple preoperative optimization regime (Functional fitness improvement, nutritional optimization & emotional bolstering.) Give a formal prescription—see Exercise Is Medicine initiative. Also detailed information on how to REVERSE or push into remission, chronic medical conditions, e.g. T2DM & depression. Unfortunately, medical training continues to focus on medication, surgery, & minimally invasive procedures to cure or treat disease. We still train students be “reactive” to illness & disease. Oh, we’re quite scientific about it. That’s where our money lies. There’s little money to be made from preventative strategies for MDs & pharmaceutical giants. The opioid epidemic in North America lies to a certain extent at the door of MDs who over-prescribe painkillers. Many are even remunerated by pharmaceutical companies to do so.
    Yes, until we up our game plan, Dr. Google will be the to go place for our patients.

  2. Hi Dr. Girgis, thanks for your post! I am a physician who blogs at and my goal is to educate the lay reader on health and medicine topics. I used to blog for free but am now monetizing my site by including ads in the sidebar and including some Amazon Associate affiliate links. I only link to over-the-counter products that I have recommended to patients and do not promote any particular brand (eg. antihistamines, decongestants, NSAIDs). I have turned down offers to review products because I don’t believe in them (eg. herbal supplements). However, I do not want to create the perception that I am promoting products because I am very committed to only providing evidence-based information. Do you have any suggestions for me as a blogger? Thanks!

  3. Well stated. Many of us do want to understand the conditions we have and their treatments and it can be hard getting good information. I defer to the physician as to what the proper course of action is, but I do want to understand what is going on.

    What I see as the biggest missing piece in most literature is how a procedure or treatment will be done. For example, I recently had my very first dermatology exam. It was at a very large dermatology practice at a large hospital. Their website did not provide any information as to what a skin exam entails, so I looked it up on the internet and came to learn it means all of your skin. No problem being my appt. was with a male doctor. What I didn’t know until the day of the exam is that this practice requires a scribe and nurse be present for full skin exams, even when the patient and doctor are both male. Being they only hire female staff meant the choice is then either only have a partial exam or suffer the indignity of having two women observe your genital/rectal exam. Their lack of literature and lack of detail in what I could find on the internet failed to inform me of what was the most defining aspect of the the exam.

    1. I am a family doctor , in practice > 40 years.
      Same experience,but I got a GREAT exam,pictures of everything that wasn’t beautiful 66 year old Florida hide.

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