Digital Patients

The instant availability of information means that most people on finding themselves ill turn to the internet, in other words, 'you Google it'. The difficulty is that any search is likely to bring up over a million results and so separating the wheat from the chaff could potentially be a lengthy task. So, in order to avoid having to wade through reams of irrelevant links, the trick is to be as specific as possible when it comes to typing your search and this will depend on the precise nature of the need. In medical terms the 'need' is usually characterised by the symptoms or better, by the diagnosis.

Symptoms and Diagnoses

As doctors keep pointing out, it is often a mistake to simply search against a symptom, because the dangers of arriving at a wrong diagnosis are all too clear and frequent. "Doctor, I have muscle pain. I think i must have contracted Bubonic Plague!". Furthermore, if you weren't actually ill before you started the search, you probably will be by the time you finish..

For most of us the first port of call is the GP, because your doctor is best qualified to form an intial diagnosis, or the need to confirm a diagnosis. The diagnosis itself is therefore the more specific point where web searches can start to become useful and relevant.

Diagnostic Search

The first website that allowed patients to actually search for an appropriate specialist according to their diagnosis was Consultant Search. This site incorporates a system called the Diagnostic Front End (DFE). By typing in your diagnosis the site will automatically list all those specialists, from across the medical specialisms who are relevant for treating that diagnosis. This is naturally a very useful starting point and is far more useful than other search functions that simply allow you to search by a medical specialism.

A 'diagnostic' search is even more relevant these days as care is increasingly managed via a multi-disciplinary team, and patients need to be aware of all treatment options available to them from across the medical specialisms. A simple example is lower back pain. If you ask an orthopaedic surgeon, a neurosurgeon, a pain specialist, a physiotherapist or an osteopath - they will probably all advise you to take their own medical specialist route, so who is right? Another example is cancer, a surgeon will suggest one path, while a radiologist or interventional oncologist performorming tumour ablation will recommend different options. Again, who is right?

However, even within a specialism there is still huge amounts of choice. If you ask ten hip surgeons which type of hip replacement you should get, you'll get ten fundamentally different answers - see Hip Replacement Options

The Digital Patient and 'Informed' Choice

The joy of the internet means that patients no longer have to abdicate decisions over their care completely to one doctor's recommendation. Furthermore, it is known that those patients who take an active role in the medical decisions through research, asking questions and becoming better informed are likely to have better outcomes.

Technology and Web Applications

Consultants, hospitals and clinics are increasingly turning to web technology in order to help their patients to get access to relevant and appropriate services that meet the expanding demand for 'informed choice'. The web application providers such as Synaptic Ltd are becoming increasingly sophisticated, especially as these systems now have to be able to combine the provision of trustworthy medical information as well as search engine optimisation, medical web publishing skills - as well as user-defined functionality. The results of these new systems in helping patients are astonishing and those services that are not responding to the requirements of the digital patient will increasingly find their patients going elsewhere.

Underpinning all successful digital medical developments is a focus on the patient need and how that is connected to trustworthy information and facilitated access to relevant health services.