Online Medical Information Doesn’t Make you a Medical Professional

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about Postman’s distinction between information, knowledge, and wisdom. I revisited those distinctions as I read the newest posted research from the Pew Internet and American Life Project. The research report, entitled, The Social Life of Health Information, documents e-patient habits. Based upon a survey conducted by the California HealthCare Foundation, the report provides interesting statistics about who is accessing online health information, what type of information they are accessing, and how it impacts patient thoughts and behavior.

I’d like to focus on a single finding from the study, “53% say it [online health/medical information] ]lead them to ask a doctor new questions, or to get a second opinion from another doctor.” Most teachers tell their students that there is no such thing as a stupid question. However, there is such a thing as an uninformed or informed question. In fact, without adequate information, how do we even know to ask a question? It takes a base level of experience or information to sometimes be able to frame helpful questions. The increased access to online “medical” information is changing the way that patients interact with doctors, changing the questions that patients do or do not ask. Now that we have this information, it is a perfect lead to another question. How does this shift impact patient care? Does it improve the patient’s chance of getting the best treatment or an accurate diagnosis? Does it simply increase medical costs due to unnecessary second opinions? Or, is it possible that this change even interferes with patient care by changing the nature of the patient-doctor interaction? Or, have be moved into a new realm of Internet-based patient self care?

I’m not a medical professional. My interest in this report relates more to how increased access to information on the Internet changes the shape of traditional interactions in society. How does it change patient-doctor interactions, student-teacher interactions, consumer-vendor interactions, and all sorts of novice-expert interactions? In some cases, is it possible that a layperson can confuse access to information with true expertise in a given area? Or, does this access to information (information that was formally only readily available to experts) empower the novice to hold experts to a higher level of accountability? I know that it does as a University professor. Now that a number of my students bring laptops to class, they can quickly “check my facts” or explore an idea that I mention in a presentation. I’ve enjoyed this shift. In fact, I even find myself leveraging this new resource. If I can’t recall the exact quote, or the author of a particular work, I can call upon a student to look it up via a web-enabled cell phone or a laptop.

Each day, we are moving further into a world where where more and more individual have access to specialized information that was formerly only available to insiders in a given field. It is for this reason that a 21st century education must have a strong emphasis upon new literacies, specifically how to understand and make sense of this wealth of information. I continue to return to Postman’s reminder that there is an important distinction between information, knowledge, and wisdom – and a 21st century education must equip individuals to live, think, behave, and choose in view of this threefold distinction. To have a suitcase (or web) full of information does not make one wise.