When I was growing up, my parents taught me that doctors should be revered and their wisdom trusted. I had a good friend whose father was a physician and I remember my dad chastising me once when I called him “Mr. Smith.” My father quickly corrected me and said, “He’s a doctor. He worked hard to get his license and it’s disrespectful not to call him Dr. Smith.”
Physicians today are still held in high regard. In fact, a 2013 Pew Research poll revealed that about two-thirds of Americans are highly respectful of physicians. That’s a little less than the respect paid to members of the military and teachers, but well-ahead of lawyers. (Those poor attorneys. More than a third of us believe they contribute little to nothing to society.)
Even though we still respect doctors, we place them on a less-elevated pedestal than we did 30 or 40 years ago. And part of that fall from grace can be blamed on technology.
When I was younger, if my brother or I ever fell ill, my mother would quickly get on the phone and consult the doctor’s office. Today, if a mysterious rash appears on my daughter’s skin or my son complains of a pain in his side, I hop onto the Internet to make my working diagnosis. And if I am concerned but don’t believe the situation is urgent, I send the doctor a question via the practice’s patient portal.
Of course I am not alone my dependence on Dr. Google. Pew reports that 72% of Americans have looked online for health information at least once in the last year. We still depend heavily on the care and wisdom of physicians, but are less inclined to believe that doctors are the exclusive keeper of the keys to all health-related matters.
And in a peculiar twist, it turns out patients are less respectful of doctors who turn to their computers to help make diagnoses. We don’t mind our physicians consulting with other physicians, but we do feel negatively about doctors taking advantage of computerized decision tools. Could it be that we perceive that doctors are going online to look up the same information we could have searched for ourselves?
Technology has put new tools directly into the hands of consumers. Patients can track their vital signs on their smartphones and transmit data directly to their physicians. More physicians now provide patients with online access to some or all of their medical records. Technology is also enabling patients to connect with other patients who have been diagnosed with similar conditions, creating wide networks for support and the sharing of information.
Patients today have ready access to an abundance of medical information that was unavailable to them just a few years ago. Patients feel more empowered having access to that data, even if some of it is flawed or requires additional interpretation by a medical professional. In short, technology has leveled the playing field between doctor and patient.
Physicians are no less deserving of our respect than they were a generation or two ago. Perhaps, though, patients like me who have semi-mastered the art of Googling for medical conditions warrant a bit of reverence ourselves.
Michelle Ronan Noteboom
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