Doctors hate it, but almost everyone does it. At the first sign of symptoms, we go online. Health-related research is one of the top three online activities in the world, according to the Content Marketing Institute. Eight out of 10 online health seekers begin at a search engine such as Google, versus just 13 percent who start their search at a site that specializes in health topics, according to Pew Research. But a Google search for nearly any health issue results in “a cascade of SEO-optimized link bait—symptom lists and forums presided over by the uninformed. Instead of Internet medicine, we have cyber-chondria,” proclaimed Wired magazine.

Google wants to change that. The company has announced that it is testing out a new tool that offers Internet symptom searchers legitimate medical advice via video chats with real live doctors. Here’s what you need to know about it, whether you need to worry about it, and how you can give your patients what they’re looking for online.

Paging Dr. Google

During the trial period, Google is funneling these medical chat requests into “Helpouts-like” video sessions. Helpouts debuted last November as a video-powered DIY community that connects people who want to learn anything from playing guitar to how to get fit. A Google spokesperson said: “When you’re searching for basic health information — from conditions like insomnia or food poisoning — our goal is provide you with the most helpful information available. We’re trying this new feature to see if it’s useful to people.”

While there is no cost during the trial period, people will have to pay for the doctor chats if and when they are formally launched. The cost is likely to be less than a typical doctor visit. According to Wired, Facebook is also reportedly experimenting with its own health care services.

Retail clinics caused similar fears

While this news may be concerning for doctors worried about quality of care and their own bottom lines, it’s not that different from the fears that surrounded the rapid increase in retail clinics in drugstores and department stores like CVS and Target several years ago. Many feared that these clinics would compete with primary care doctors by offering better hours and walk-in appointments, as well as lower, transparent pricing. The fears escalated when Walgreens announced plans last year to start treating not just sore throats and UTIs, but chronic conditions like asthma and diabetes.

Many doctors, including KevinMD.com’s  Kevin Pho, concluded that retail clinics would never replace primary care doctors for several reasons, including continuity of care, personalized treatment, and the experience level of providers. The same is true for “Dr. Google.” So what can doctors do to convince patients of that and give them what they want?

Increasing your practice’s value offering

The common theme in the rise of retail clinics and online health solutions is that we are living in a consumer-driven health care environment. Patients accustomed to shopping and paying bills online, scheduling appointments on their smartphones, and accessing information instantly with the click of a search button are no longer willing to endure traditional health care operations. Calling and being placed on hold for ages? Waiting weeks or months for an appointment? Paying a fortune for a 10-minute visit during which the doctor barely makes eye contact? That doesn’t cut it in 2014.

Patients are acting more like consumers, and as such, are expecting more from their doctors in terms of service and quality. Patients want tech-savvy doctors, but they will only use your technology – like a patient portal – if there’s something in it for them. So instead of trying to keep your patients off Google, you need to offer them things that Google can’t.

Now more than ever it’s important to be a source of health information for your patients. You can answer frequently asked questions on a blog or Facebook page. You can use high-quality patient education featuring animations and video to provide patients with personalized information targeted to their specific conditions and treatments. And with a cloud-based program, you can provide that info wherever and whenever patients want it, not just during office hours or when they can schedule an appointment.

Because patients will never stay off Google entirely, you should also give them tips on how to search safely – for instance, stick to sites ending in .gov, .org, and .edu; determine whether the site is trying to sell you something; and look for clearly identified sources and accreditation.

By giving patients what only you can offer – namely, a trusted doctor-patient relationship that can’t be replaced by convenience or technology – you won’t have to worry about losing them to Dr. Google.

To learn how we can help you better serve patients in this rapidly changing health care environment, contact us today.

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