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Online health: Is this the end of family medicine?


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Vol 59: AUGUST • AoûT 2013


Canadian Family PhysicianLe Médecin de famille canadien



Cet article se trouve aussi en français à la page 814.

Online health

Is this the end of family medicine?

Roger Ladouceur



uring the past few years, there has been a dramatic increase in recourse to online health information, commonly referred to as e-health. Not only do most of our patients have Internet access, but many of them consult websites dedicated to answering questions that have traditionally been asked of family physicians.1 These days, it is not unusual to see a patient who, after doing some online research, knows almost as much as we do about his or her health issue. This is more likely to be true if the patient has a serious condition about which medi- cine seems to be at a loss. Who has not seen a patient with a debilitating disease—advanced cancer, amyotro- phic lateral sclerosis, Parkinson disease—who learned about some new, promising, and groundbreaking treat- ment online? Think of the interest in Paolo Zamboni’s technique for treating chronic cerebrospinal venous insuf- ficiency in patients with multiple sclerosis. Many patients traveled outside Canada to have stents inserted, even though the scientific evidence failed to demonstrate the benefits of this intervention and most physicians had never heard of it. This is completely understandable: who among us would not do the same if we were dealing with a serious or fatal disease?

Expert patient

In just a few years, we have moved from the “patient patient” to the “impatient patient” to the “partner patient”

and, now, to the “expert patient.”2 Today, anyone search- ing online will likely find whatever information he or she is so desperately looking for, whether it relates to the use of stem cells for cardiac regeneration following myocar- dial infarction or for the treatment of osteoarthritis or Alzheimer disease; or the use of gene therapies to treat leukemia or cystic fibrosis. The truth is, these days there is no limit to what we can hope for. It is now possible, as some say,3 to imagine that we are on the brink of “the death of death.”

Obviously, some people will say that you can find anything on the Internet—good or bad. However, with the emergence of websites that are directly linked to large health organizations such as Choices, from the

United Kingdom’s National Health Service,4 Doctissimo,5 and the Health On the Net Foundation,6 we must admit that the information on these sites is usually credible and valid.

Family physicians and e-health

This brings us to the role of the family physician in response to the emergence of online health information.

How can a physician who is not an expert in any of these diseases, let alone their specific treatment, continue to be relevant? What does he or she know of personalized, customized gene therapy or stem cell therapy? How can a family physician, whose goal is to deliver continuous and comprehensive care, as opposed to specialized and ultra-specialized care, still help patients?

Perhaps this is the beginning of the end of family med- icine as we have known it. At the same time, enhanced family medicine skills programs will continue to quickly expand and grow. Each of us will become a “mini- specialist” in a narrowly defined field—the result being that health care will become increasingly fragmented.

Or perhaps we will continue to be the only profes- sionals able to deliver comprehensive and continuous care; the only ones able to help, guide, and advise; the only ones able to give patients the straight facts; the only ones able to navigate the maze of knowledge that e-health offers us.

Only time will tell.

Competing interests None declared


1. Thoër C, Lévy JJ. Internet et santé: acteurs, usages et appropriations. Quebec, QC: Presses de l’Université du Québec; 2012.

2. Villedieu Y. La société est-elle prête pour la médecine du futur? Paper pre- sented at: Colloque annuel du Collège des médecins du Québec; 2012 May 10; Montreal, QC.

3. Alexandre L. La mort de la mort. Paris, France: Éditions JC Lattès; 2011.

4. National Health Service [website]. NHS choices. London, UK: National Health Service. Available from: www.nhs.uk/Pages/HomePage.aspx. Accessed 2013 Jul 10.

5. Doctissimo. Levallois-Perret, France; Doctissimo. Available from: www.

doctissimo.fr. Accessed 2013 Jul 10.

6. Health on the Net Foundation. Chêne-Bourg, Switzerland; Health on the Net Foundation. Available from: www.hon.ch. Accessed 2013 Jul 10.


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