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March 7, 2006

Internet, e-mail enhances doctor-patient interaction, U-M researcher finds

Systematic approach can help physicians, patients benefit from this tool

ANN ARBOR, MI – As more people turn to the Internet for health information, doctors can use it to improve the quality of office visits. But doctors and their patients should be aware of the advantages and potential pitfalls of communicating with each other online, according to a paper published in the March 2006 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons

Dr. BiermannThe paper, an extensive review of current data on physician-patient electronic communication, found that due to the rise in patients using the Internet for communication and information, orthopedic surgeons should consider incorporating this resource into their practices – but they should do so in a thought-out and systematic way.

Use of the Internet has increased exponentially among American adults, from 18 million users in 1996 to 140 million in April 2002.  As of December 2003, 69 percent of American adults were regularly online.  One of the most common uses of the Internet is to obtain health or medical information, although users searching for health information may not have the same needs or interests as actual patients.  “Health information” can also include exercise, diet and home remedies in addition to medical knowledge.

The paper notes that as many as 55 percent of patients with musculoskeletal conditions will have sought information related to their diagnosis prior to the actual office visit.  Online medical information may be a useful adjunct to traditional doctor-patient interaction because it is readily available, wide in scope and can provide the patient with basic knowledge on a given topic.  A subsequent office visit may then be more efficiently spent refining information and answering the patient’s specific questions.  In addition, some patient concerns may be easily satisfied through the use of e-mail.

“Patients are researching their conditions online, and this can be a positive thing,” says lead author J. Sybil Biermann, MD, associate professor of orthopedic surgery and director of musculoskeletal oncology at the University of Michigan Health System. “We want our patients to be educated and engaged in managing their own health. Therefore, we need to partner with patients to use this resource to maximum effect.”

While electronic communication can be an important part of patient-centered care, doctors should be aware of its potential legal and confidentiality pitfalls. For example, any plan to incorporate doctor-patient electronic communication should include specific policies regarding issues such as patient privacy and conveying sensitive information. In addition, doctors who wish to refer patients to health information Web sites should review the site’s content and consider the hosting organization before doing so.

“Orthopedic surgeons and other physicians can take the lead in online health research by providing their patients with useful sites and other reliable resources,” Biermann says. “Patients can then bring specific, informed questions when they visit their physicians. Patients also have a responsibility to consider the source of Internet-based health information, and to understand that not all of the information they find will apply to them.”

An orthopedic surgeon is a physician with extensive training in the diagnosis and treatment of the musculoskeletal system including bones, joints, ligaments, tendons and nerves.

In addition to Biermann, study authors were Gregory Golladay, M.D., Orthopedic Associates of Grand Rapids, PC; and Richard Peterson, J.D., American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.

Written by Nicole Fawcett

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