Your Health and Online Information: What You Need to Know

Featured Speaker

Janell L. Lewis

Preparing for a doctor’s visit will help both you and your provider make the most out of your appointment. 

In this age of online information and health tools, it can be quite confusing whether what you read is the truth or fiction. 

With medical records becoming digital and health information available at the touch of a button, you might wonder if this is more complicated or easier to access. 

Janell L. Lewis is here to offer simple strategies to make sure that your 15 minutes with the healthcare provider leads to the best health outcomes.

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Melanie Cole (Host):  Preparing for your doctor’s appointment visit will help both you and your provider make the most of your appointment. But, in this day of online information and health tools, it can be quite confusing—whether what you read is truth or fact; whether you’re supposed to ask your doctor about these things. My guest today is Janell Lewis. She’s the program manager for Maine Health Community Health Education program. Welcome to the show, Janell. Let’s talk a little bit about what goes on today. Online, we see stuff everywhere. The health information is overwhelming. What do you tell people about what to pick and choose from the health information out there if they’re searching around?

Janell Lewis (Guest):  You’re absolutely right. The internet is a vast source of information, both good and bad. So, we ask that people become savvy consumers just like they would with any other resource that they use. This is the world where we look at Yelp for reviews for restaurants and TripAdvisor, so we encourage individuals, when they’re looking online, to do the same thing—to look at the information but to be skeptical about the information. So, what we say is, “Look at the website. Who manages the website? Who is putting out this information?” Is there an “About Us” component? Do they look at that and who is on the “About Us”? Are they credible resources like doctors, professors, researchers? Also, a quick tip that we tell people is look at the URL for the site and is it followed by a “.gov,” a “.edu” or a “.org”? All of those we consider credible right from the start. What we say is if what follows is a “.com,” to think about that a little it more as there may be a commercial interest in the information that they are providing.

Melanie:  That’s great. That’s a great point, really. Now, when people go to visit their provider-- their internist or a specialist--and they have all these questions, what do you recommend they do with all of those questions and based on the things that they’ve read, if they’ve got a symptom, do they bring this information to the doctor or is the doctor insulted when they say, “Well, I read this.” 

Janell:  The doctor usually is not insulted and I would say that if the doctor is insulted, it’s probably not the best provider for you. The doctor should view questions and research as a relationship and that’s a good thing. Doctors are overwhelmed by the information and the research that is out there and they need your help as a patient. So, we encourage our individuals who come into the Learning Resource Center to research their questions, their symptoms, their conditions but to be concise when they go to that doctors’ visit. So, what are your top 3 questions that you really want to know? Write those down. Bring the resources that you discovered and share that with the doctor. You can sometimes even send that information ahead and ask your doctor or your healthcare provider to look at that and say, “These are some of the questions that I have.” We also say when you are at that visit, if you can, bring a friend or a family member, a loved one or a partner who can also hear the answers and write those down. Or, so many of us have smart phones or tablets that have recording devices, so record that information so you can  reflect on it later. It’s really difficult to retain some of that as it’s happening but if you can look back on it, you get more out of it later.

Melanie:  That’s so important to have an advocate with you to hear in case what you’re learning from the doctor is scary or you don’t understand it. Recording it is a great idea. What about being honest with your doctor, Janell? People fill out those health histories and they’re not always completely honest about maybe their smoking or their alcohol use. Talk about being honest with your doctor and the results that will bring.

Janell:  The first thing I would say to somebody asking about being honest is if you’ve ever felt shamed by a provider or your current provider, again, that’s not the right provider for you because a doctor or healthcare provider wants you to be 100% honest so they can give you the best treatment that is going to work for your symptoms, for your condition. You need to tell them if you smoke, if you drink, if you’re doing drugs, if you’re doing homeopathics or alternative, integrative medicines. All of that plays into how they diagnose and treat you and they want to hear that. They want to know about you, your preferences, your family, what works for your lifestyle—all of that is important in how you’re being treated.

Melanie:  And then, what about when your doctor gives you this information and deciding what to do with it. Do you discuss that with your doctor? Speak about getting a second opinion so that you really get that great health advocacy for yourself because we do have to be our own best advocates.

Janell:  I encourage second opinions when possible, particularly for more serious diagnoses. However, sometimes insurance can be a hindrance to that so it’s important to always know your insurance coverage. Will they pay for a second diagnosis? Is that something that you can afford? Then ask, “What will that second diagnosis tell you?” Is this a common diagnosis that you’re getting? Is it rare? Is it something that there’s a lot of research around? There are many factors behind that. Again, it comes down to being an inquisitive consumer of your healthcare. Ask questions. It’s okay to stop your provider and say, “Wait a minute. I’m concerned about this. Can you give me percentages? Can you give me websites that I can go to that are credible so that I can learn more about what you’re saying?” 

Melanie:  What about keeping your own medical records? Janell, what do you advise listeners and patients to do? Back in the day, when everything was on a piece of paper, you could lug around a big old folder, but now, with electronic records and things being transferred over, do you carry a zip drive around with you with  a list of your medications? With all of your MRIs or x-rays and what do you advise people about keeping their own medical records?

Janell:  That’s a great question. It depends. Again, a lot of this depends on your medical organization, your healthcare organization. Do they have an online portal? If they do, that could be a great place to keep your records. If you’re traveling and you have a chronic condition that requires ongoing treatment or ongoing care, we absolutely encourage you to keep that on a zip drive. It’s a great idea. There are apps out there where you can keep that information. Anybody who’s dealing with something that has long term effects or consequences, we always encourage them to keep that information virtually whenever possible because it can be quite cumbersome to carry around a paper folder with all of that information and it changes so rapidly. So, a zip drive is a great idea. There are apps out there and also working with your healthcare organization’s online portal.

Melanie:  If you do get that second opinion, so that you don’t have to ask your first doctor for all of your records, keeping that with you is a way to do it without that embarrassment, correct?

Janell:  Absolutely. Sometimes, there is some bureaucracy with getting your records transferred. Sometimes there can be a cost if you’re going into a different healthcare system. You have every right to keep track of your own records. If you can, we always encourage people to do that just for that ease in moving from provider to provider.

Melanie:  So, in just the last few minutes, Janell, your best advice for educating consumers, patients, listeners, on being their own best health advocate in this age of electronic records and the internet for health information. Just tell them what you really want them to know.

Janell:  We really encourage patients to be consumers of their healthcare as you would do with anything else. When we buy a car, we research it extensively. Like I said, when we go to a restaurant, when we go to a hotel, your health is just as important. Know your provider. Know the healthcare organizations. Understand your insurance. Know where you can go to ask questions. You can always come to us at the Learning Resource Center. Our website is MaineHealthLearningCenter.org. But, be an advocate for your health and be a consumer and be informed. It’s okay to ask questions. It’s okay to want to know the answers. Your provider should be a partner in your care.

Melanie:  You can get more information at MaineHealthLearningCenter.org. You’re listening to MMC Radio. For more information, you can go to MaineMedicalCenter.org. That’s MMC.org. This is Melanie Cole. Thanks so much for listening.