When – not if, but when – your patients search on their own for information on a particular suite of symptoms or a specific condition, they will invariably use the Internet. Not only can everything can be found on the Internet, but anything can be found there. Inevitably, they will come across web sites that offer confusing, questionable, misleading and even dangerous statements. Your website, presenting your views on health subjects, qualified by your education, training and experience, can cut through the disorganized and overwhelming amount of information available to patients. One approach to achieve this goal is to think like a librarian.

Don’t believe for a moment that librarians are supremely neutral, non-judgmental guardians of all information. A degreed librarian (that is, one who has earned an M.L.S., Masters of Library Science, from an accredited graduate school) has been trained to review, analyze and grade information sources and can recognize bad product when he or she sees it. While a librarian’s training includes strictures against either endorsing or condemning any specific source, there is nothing to prevent guiding a patron seeking information towards a group of sources that have been proven to be more accurate than others.

No single source is infallible, of course, certainly not all of the time, so any medical sources you guide your patients to on your website should be reviewed and judged on a case-by-case basis. If you present content on your website that is drawn from, say, an article in Science or even JAMA, don’t hesitate to cite it. This will allow your patients to understand that the information you are giving them has an authoritative source that they can independently verify.

Keep in mind, though, that presenting information to your patients falls under the “you can lead a horse to water…” school of guidance. They may go elsewhere for additional information and, at your next consultation, be ready to debate what you said against what they found on their own. If they have at least read your side of the debate, though, you are that much further ahead.

There are two minefields that you need to be aware of: subscription journals and copyright. If you are using as a source an article from a journal to which you subscribe on-line, you cannot hot-link to the full article. A subscription to a journal on a personal or practice-only basis gives rights to full access only to those listed on the subscription agreement. If you are providing direct quotes, you are limited by the “fair-use doctrine” to the size of the quote. The law is a little fuzzy about the exact length, but, in general, anything beyond a few sentences is usually not allowed. If you feel that a specific patient really must read the full article, best practice dictates that you purchase an offprint from the publisher.

Copyright is a very complicated area. Anything published by a U.S. government agency is not under copyright and can be used freely. Other than that, your best bet is to assume that everything else is under copyright and can only be reprinted or quoted at length with the permission of the copyright holder (who is usually, but not always, the author or authors). If you find an article that you like so much that you want to share a substantial portion of it with your patients on your website, write to the person or group who holds the copyright and ask permission. Odds are that they will be flattered and gladly give permission. If not, do not go beyond the “fair use” standards.

A physician’s website presents an opportunity to educate patients, influence their behaviors and promote a bond of trust. By presenting your website as a resource for reliable information, you can expand your care beyond that brief face-to-face consultation.

– George Bear

Note: Ask your web designer about a content management system (CMS) for your medical practice website. Horton Group develops on the Drupal CMS. Call 615-292-8642 for more information.