The Internet is good for many things. From finding a movie that you can’t remember the title of to helping elementary school students do research for their reports, search engines put information at a person’s fingertips.
The Internet can also help people understand more about certain health conditions, such as cancer or diabetes. People are also turning to the search engine for diagnoses for common ailments such as headaches and dizziness. This is where the trouble starts. Symptoms are very much up to interpretation. Computers are good at providing information, not providing a medical diagnosis (yet). Services like Opternative offer online eye exams and there are even websites that offer kits that claim to improve vision so that you can get rid of contacts or glasses.
Before you dismiss these people as fools with soon departed money or suffering cyberchondriacs, there are ways you can help your patients use the Internet to help them reach their health goals. If you haven’t figured it out by now, let me make it official—the Internet isn’t some fad. Since you can’t beat’em, join’em.
The first step is to find out what sites your patients are using. Having a patient that is taking the time to be informed about his or her health is a good thing. If you know that a particular site that has good health information, let patients know. Put a link on your website and social media channels. Not only is there a lot of information out there, there is a lot of misinformation as well. Remind patients that even the best sites are to be used for suggestions, not self-diagnosis. The patient is to take the information and consult with his or her doctor, not use it in place of a doctor visit.
With services like Opternative, remind your patients that optometrist and ophthalmalogists are medical doctors who specialize in eyes and vision. A website might be able to provide a vision test, but only an optometrist or ophthalmalogist can diagnose medical conditions, such as glaucoma, cataracts and even conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure.
As for websites that claim to improve vision, study after study has shown that eye exercises do not improve visual acuity. This is where some Eye Anatomy 101 comes in handy. Explain to patient that the shape of the eye can lead to focusing errors such as near and farsightedness and astigmatism (and use a Gulden eye model in your demonstration). Eye exercises do not change the shape of the eye. While there are eye exercises that help children with convergence insufficiency use their eyes better together and there are eye exercises which help stroke victims improve functional vision, these work on the eye/brain connection, not the shape of the eye itself.
As great as the Internet is as a source of information, it can’t replace people, especially doctors. There will always be a need for someone to do the hands-on work of examining a patient in real life and making a diagnosis in real time – and to hand out lollipops and stickers when the exam is done!