People increasingly seeking medical help online, study finds

Web-savvy doctors improving quantity and quality of information available for e-patients; plus three tips for physicians wishing to boost their online presence.

This story is in partnership with Avvo. To find out more about Avvo, click here.

With rising health care costs and major changes being made to our health care system, more people turn to the Internet as a source of information about medical issues and doctors. Avvo, a leading medical and legal site, recently surveyed more than 1,000 e-patients to see how they use the Internet to choose a doctor and prepare for medical appointments.

Some of these trends may surprise you.

Patients scope out online reviews.

Physicians’ resumes, disciplinary history, patient reviews, published articles, and comments they have made in the media are now all available online. As a result, patients who previously would have chosen a medical provider based on a recommendation from a friend or family member are increasingly going online to more thoroughly research providers and validate recommendations. This trend is often referred to as the e-patient movement—the “e” can stand for a number of attributes, including “empowered, engaged, equipped, or enabled”—and it is becoming increasingly mainstream.

According to Avvo’s survey, 73 percent of respondents said they research doctors online. Disciplinary history and patient reviews are the most important factors when choosing a doctor, the survey says.

Patients search for answers online.

The average medical appointment now lasts just 13 minutes, according to the National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey from 2011. As a result, patients turn to online Q&A forums to prepare for their visit. Online Q&As and forums with licensed, board-certified medical professionals offer an efficient and cost-effective way to prepare patients by providing answers to routine questions before the patient meets with the physician, saving valuable appointment time.

Avvo’s survey supports this trend, finding that nearly half of all respondents ask health questions in online forums before seeing their doctor.

A poor economy prompts patients to talk to doctors online.

As more people lose their health insurance because of job cuts, many are turning to the Internet to replace the in-person doctor visit for non-emergency cases. Avvo’s survey affirms this trend, with 42 percent of respondents noting that they visit the doctor less often because of economic conditions.

Medical professionals can go digital three ways.

With more people using the Internet to receive health information, the demand for better, more trustworthy health information online is on the rise. Avvo’s survey results demonstrate both an opportunity and responsibility on the part of physicians to engage online and become trusted sources of credible information for the growing number of e-patients.

Here are three ways medical professionals can use digital media to communicate with patients:

Blogs: Orthopedic surgeon Howard Luks, M.D.,uses a blog to educate his patients and prospective patients before their appointment using videos, health guides, and FAQs.

Twitter: Pediatrician Alan Greene, M.D., uses Twitter to share his views on children’s health issues.

Participate in online health care resources: Plastic surgeon Jody Digiacomo, M.D., answers questions on Avvo’s Q&A forum to provide expert information to consumers and help manage his online reputation.

For more results from Avvo’s survey or additional examples of physicians’ use of digital media to educate and engage patients online, please email megan@avvo.com.

Leigh McMillan is the vice president of marketing and communications at Avvo. She has more than 15 years of experience in digital media. Avvo is a free service (for both doctors and consumers) that offers ratings and profiles for 90 percent of licensed doctors in the U.S. as well as a secure Q&A forum, which receives more than 50,000 questions and answers per month, where consumers can ask doctors general health questions.

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