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The Physician of the Future

Elyas Bakhtiari, for HealthLeaders Media, September 24, 2009

I have a confession: My first source of medical care for most non-emergency ailments isn't my primary care physician, a retail clinic, a physician assistant, or any other provider. It's the Internet. Before I even schedule an appointment with my doctor, I Google my symptoms to narrow down the list of possible ailments and decide whether I can wait out the problem or treat myself.

To be honest, my track record of self diagnosing isn't great, but I've gotten used to tracking down most of the information I need in daily life with a click of a mouse, and I take a similar approach to health issues.

I'm not alone, either. Nearly three-quarters of U.S. adults have searched health information online and two-thirds do so on a regular basis.

Ideally, these patients would be getting information from reputable sources and partnering with physicians to learn more about treatment options and even the science behind their conditions. If you haven't read this month's HealthLeaders magazine cover story about the patient of the future, I highly recommend it, because it presents a compelling vision for how physicians and digitally-empowered patients could work together in a future healthcare system.

Unfortunately, both the patient and the physician of the present are currently obstacles to that type of cooperation, in their own ways. Patients often frustrate physicians by obsessing over misleading information found online or ignoring advice about improving their own health. And physicians, accustomed to reverence for their expertise, don't always extend a hand to patients interested in their own care.

Adapting to the transformation of the traditionally compliant patient into the well-informed medical shopper will be one of the most significant challenges physicians face in the coming years, says Ed Millermaier, MD, MBA, the CMO and COO of Borgess Ambulatory Care in Kalamazoo, MI. Patients armed with clinical and practice information set higher expectations for their providers, and it can be tough to keep up.

To make matters more complicated, today's physicians have to meet the expectations of a growing segment of savvy patients while "continuing to meet the needs and demands of those who don't have this level of engagement in management of their own health," Millermaier says.

So what's a doctor to do? First, physicians have to move forward on electronic health record and other IT adoption. I've heard the arguments against adoption and understand the financial and practical objections, but it's difficult to imagine a patient-centered healthcare system in the future that relies on paper records. The case for delay becomes less compelling every day.

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