How the Internet and the “Age of Personal Beliefs” Threatens the Integrity of Medical Institutions Part I: Losing Sight of the Facts

As the plethora of information available to modern Americans envelopes us, so too does the increasing desire to distrust it. Anyone can have an audience and a platform, and while this can certainly be beneficial, it also makes it more difficult to sift through intentions, biases, and sources that may or may not be accurate. While the focus as of late has been on the political ramifications of wide-spread misinformation, there are also serious and potentially dangerous consequences for the field of medicine. While medical professionals and institutions have worked to root themselves in trust over the past century, a Gallop poll in 2016 found that only 39% of responders report having “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the medical system.[1] The complications that arise from an era where beliefs and facts compete for precedence has a strong effect on patients, medical professionals, and the attorneys dealing with the fallouts between the former two.

To understand what specific problems have evolved and why, here is the first of two posts that will focus on clarifying and providing answers about seeking medical assistance online so that patients can be more safe, attorneys can spot risks and liabilities, and medical professionals can continue doing their jobs to the best of their abilities.


Why Online Medical Information is Unique

Misinformation and money-making schemes are not new to the American medical scene – there have always been medical quacks with presences and publications people bought into – but what is unique about the boom in internet-available information is that it is equally in the hands of patients. We have immediate access to the answers to our questions in the form of a Google search, and while this means we have exposure to experts’ evidence-based analysis, we have equal exposure to falsities that are propagated not necessarily from ill-will, but due simply to the fact that inaccurate sites often link to other information that reinforces those misconceptions and rumors.[2] A 2010 study found that of the search results for commonly researched pediatric questions, 39% contained correct information, 11% were incorrect, and 49% failed to answer the question, so clearly, finding the correct information is not as easy as typing in a simple question.[3]

Who is the Expert?

More than ever before, physicians are seeing patients who demand certain tests, diagnoses, medications, and procedures after reading about them online. Bolstered with knowledge – whether correct or misguided – patients unintentionally reframe their symptoms to fit with what they have read online, their belief blinding them to any facts that may ruffle their resolve. As mentioned in our blog posts on patient satisfaction, physicians will often feel forced to bend to the will of the patient in order to keep high satisfaction ratings, even if this means putting aside their years of training for the sake of unverified internet suggestions. This can shut out all other opportunities for a medical professional to guide a patient towards another, cheaper or more feasible answer.


Another, indirect harm of misinformation and misinterpretation of symptoms is the unnecessary stress a patient may experience due to unfounded escalation of concerns regarding their situation.[4] Most signs and symptoms are not exclusive to one disease, but this is easy to lose sight of when your symptom matches those listed in an online article describing a deadly disease.[5]


            Approximately 80% of internet users search for health information online – the problems that can emerge from online medical seeking doesn’t affect a small community, but the vast majority of us.[6] In the second half of this series, the focus will be upon some of the specific dangers self-misdiagnoses can cause, as well as what both doctors and patients can do to avoid the pitfalls of online medical information to best benefit from mass information sharing.

[1] Beam, Eric, “Welcome to the world of post-truth medicine,”, Jan. 22, 2017,

[2] Buck, Stephanie, “What Doctors Think About Your Online Health Searches,”, June 15, 2012,

[3] Ibid

[4] Shanbhag, Akshata, “The Dangers of Searching for Medical Information Online,”, Dec. 6, 2014,

[5] Buck, “What Doctors Think”

[6] Ibid