by Yan Xu

Building trust between physicians and patients in an era of Dr. Google

Clinical knowledge has now become easier to obtain than ever. Open-access medical journals that waive subscription fees for readers, electronic medical record systems such as My e-Health in British Columbia that allow patients access to their own lab results, and full subscription to point-of-care tools such as UpToDate by patients have flattened the information hierarchy enjoyed by care providers over the past centuries. It is also changing the landscape of our health care encounters: close to 1 in 5 adults in a recent survey had spoken to a clinician about a medical condition they read about online.

However, rather than trimming away at the benign paternalism that has reigned over medicine for an age of enhanced physician-patient partnership, the spread of medical knowledge to the public has driven a wedge between many providers and those whom they serve. The notion that medical knowledge is best kept outside the realm of patients, lest it becomes a source of confusion for “cyberchondriacs”, remains entrenched in many providers’ minds. Meanwhile, web-savvy patients, discovering that their physicians were not aware of the latest clinical trial that had been broadcast in the media, become disillusioned and skeptical toward their providers. While a patient’s right to self-determination is taught in medical school, as a society we continue to grapple with where the right balance between patient choice and provider guidance ought to lie.

The role of health care providers as a “gatekeeper” makes sense in many situations, such as protecting the general public from risks of powerful medications like opioid painkillers. As the public, we entrust practitioners with the task of interpreting medical information based on their knowledge and experience. This is the reason that direct to consumer advertising by the pharmaceutical industry is restricted in most countries. On the other hand, as the spread of mobile health technology and data liberation initiative of U.S. Medicare services demonstrate, there is sustained desire for patient and public involvement in health care that go beyond simple reliance for clinicians to make the best decisions for us.

So it is clear that the genie is out of the bottle – and I believe that this new era of the shift in provider-patient relationships calls for renewed expectations on both parties.

The providers in this swiftly changing climate must embrace the new reality that it is virtually impossible to know about every novel development in medicine, even in sub-specialist fields. Accompanying this would be acceptance that patients bringing forth clinical information that was previously unknown to physicians should be appreciated as a valuable contribution rather than a threat to their competence.

As “e-Patient Dave” deBronkart mentioned in a recent episode of CBC’s White Coat Black Art, “the physician whose self-worth is dependent on knowing everything is in big trouble […] there is no shame in someone less trained providing a piece of information that you don’t have, because there is still room for the trained mind to interpret it.”

At the same time, patients should in turn evaluate their own expectation for physicians in light of the rapidly expanding medical literature. Patient engagement arose from the recognition that health care is not perfect, and that to err is human. Amongst patients who see themselves as active participants in their care, a shift of focus is needed to see physician encounters not as an adversarial battle where a provider’s performance is judged against omniscience in every field of medicine. The new physician-patient encounter ought to be a meeting place where patients bring their personal experience, search results and an open mind, and where physicians bring expertise in clinical medicine, knowledge of pathophysiology and skills in critical appraisal to help contextualize them.

Dissemination of medical knowledge to the public may be considered by many as a “disruptive innovation.” It is time to leverage this unique opportunity to improve the quality of care with the aim of providing excellent care for all. It has been said that an average primary care physician needs to read over 7,200 articles per month to keep up with every latest advance in the field, an impossible task. A mix of collaborative spirit and trust, combined with mutual humility and understanding, provides the recipe to ensure that patients and physicians both benefit in this brave new world.

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  • Katherine Jaconello says:

    “Dissemination of medical knowledge to the public may be considered by many as a disruptive innovation.” You said it, Mr. Xu. There, in a nutshell, is the embodiment of the philosophy of medicine – man is an animal to be herded. The College of Physicians puts out its lofty spin on doctors being trustworthy, knowledgeable, serving the public. But if you file a complaint about violations, you’ll likely be summarily and expediently kicked out. I am afraid that Mr. Xu is in for a ride in this profession which is 50 – 300 years behind the times yet has garnered to it all the power in the world to govern itself. “A mix of collaborative spirit and trust, combined with mutual humility and understanding” will never happen.

    • Yan Xu says:

      Hello Ms. Jaconello,

      Thank you for your interest in my article! One thing that caught my interest is your comment on the likelihood of collaboration, trust, humility and understanding on part of both patients and physicians. Admittedly, I am not familiar with medical regulatory policy, but my view is that we cannot stop moving towards greater partnership between patients and physicians.

      I am a staunch believer that patient-centred care is not an amenity but a necessity; shared decision-making, in my view, is not a convenience but should be an essence of our health care system. Having said this, I also strongly believe in the role that clinician guidance and recommendation have in the increasingly complex healthcare options and choices: there is evidence, for example, that only 5% of seniors enrolled in government prescription drug plans (Medicare Part D) chooses an option that gives them the best savings. I think that there will always be a place for expert recommendation, and trust will be vital to making sure that such guidance will be meaningful.

      So I believe the march towards greater understanding and collaboration between clinicians and patients must continue – the consequences otherwise would be mutually detrimental.

  • Renate Ilse says:

    Often the concern is not that patients are bringing in new information, but rather that that they present the new information with a demand for a specific treatment/medication and an unwillingness to listen to the physician’s perspective on it. I’ve seen this many a time and it puts even the most open-minded physicians in untenable situations.

    • Yan Xu says:

      Hello Renate,
      Thank you for your comment! I agree with you that it can be strain the therapeutic relationship when stakeholders (patients, families) have an entrenched notion about therapy based on information that may have been presented without context. As the unfortunate history of autologous stem cell transplant for treatment of breast cancer attests, it can sometimes lead to considerable patient harm.

      My humble opinion, though, is that the flip side of what you have presented may also be true, where some patients may have encountered physicians who had such buy-in for a particular treatment modality that they were unwilling to listen to the patient perspective.

      My sense is that both providers and patients ultimately have an overlapping core motivation – a plan that helps the individual live longer and/or feel better. If we can work from this principle and bridge our differences, hopefully we can meet somewhere in the middle.

      Thank you again for your comment!


Yan Xu


Yan Xu is a medical student at Queen’s University. He was the former coordinator of a student-directed seminar, “Ethics of International Service-Learning”, at the University of British Columbia.

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