Is everybody really doing it?
The “it” that I refer to is using the Internet to get answers to a health-related question rather than consulting a professional. In theory it sounds so simple: key in the symptoms, receive information and decide upon a diagnosis. Simple, perhaps, but not easy because the potential to misdiagnose is significant.
How pervasive is the practice of consulting Dr. Google among today’s veterinary clients? In a survey of 225 VHMA members, 67% reported that clients use the Internet to treat, diagnose or find out more about a pet’s health. Thirty-three percent said clients are most likely to comparison shop veterinary visits, vaccines and products on the Internet.
It is not uncommon for clients—armed with the wisdom of the Internet—to offer a diagnosis of their pet’s condition to veterinary staff. Clients are also apt to confer with veterinary staff about treatment found online and to a lesser extent, request a specific treatment that was touted online. Some clients---albeit a very small percentage---have gone rogue and changed a pet’s treatment and/or diet based on online advice!
Using information obtained from the Internet, clients have:
40% Presented the pet’s diagnosis to practice staff
35% Consulted with staff about treatment found online
10% Requested a specific treatment recommended online
5% Made changes that have impacted pet’s health using online information
Despite research that suggests that using Google to diagnose illnesses could in fact be a very bad way of getting appropriate medical treatment, most clients (61%) do not regret relying on online advice. Clients who have expressed remorse are those, according to respondents, who have misdiagnosed a pet’s condition, provided inappropriate treatment or delayed treatment, thereby negatively impacting the pet’s health.
Veterinary professionals are well aware of the danger of misinterpreting Internet information and the majority of respondents (65%) recommend internet sites to clients consistently, while 29% do it sometimes.
Website recommendations seem to be offered casually during exam room conversations with clients (80%). Some practices use social media or Facebook (50%) to direct clients to internet sites or list these sites in handouts that are available at the practice (48%). Others use electronic communication (33%) or newsletter articles (18%) to share website information.
For today’s veterinary clients, the temptation to consult the Internet is great. However, given the hit-or-miss nature of web information, the potential for harm to the pet is great too. Veterinary professionals would be hard pressed to end this pervasive practice, but they can help ensure Internet searches are less haphazard by identifying credible links on the practice website. Reading information on these sites can be helpful and informative, but clients would be well advised to discuss any treatment with a veterinary professional before taking action.