Change is always painful, even when everyone benefits from it.  We usually do our best to ignore slow trends, keeping our comfortable habits and pretending that the world will never surprise us.  I’m sure long after Ford started selling cars there were plenty of horse buggy makers who were sure that the car would always be an expensive frill for the very few.

I don’t think anything in the last 15 years has revolutionized our lives as much as the internet.  It has transformed how we shop, communicate with each other, gather news, get entertainment, and even form communities.  It has radically democratized journalism, entertainment and advertising.  Now anyone at a disaster can report what she has seen on her blog.  Anyone can shop for obscure items from sellers all over the world.  Anyone can share his art with a nearly unlimited number of fans.  Like all technological progress, this brings even more power to individuals, and away from large powerful groups.  But like all change, this too is painful.  (Just ask a screenwriter.)

The internet has narrowed the difference between the expert and the novice.  Experts no longer have a monopoly on information.  Patients can access as much information as doctors, and frequently notice new studies before their physicians do.  Some doctors are annoyed by this.  Defensive about their eroding knowledge gap, and (like everyone) fearful of change, some doctors cling to the role of expert and refuse their new role of teacher.  They can’t stand patients who bring in 5 studies from the internet and challenge their recommendation, or email them about an article that just came out today, or send them links to websites that advocate sheer quackery.

I love that.  Any professional who thinks their value is in finding information that no one else has is in for a rude awakening.  Google can do that cheaper and faster.  I have no information that my patients can’t find without my help.  The value doctors deliver is in exercising their judgment, and in teaching.  “This herbal product has never been tested and the website that praises it is the same one trying to sell it to you.” “This family of medications has been proven to prevent kidney failure.  Here’s a link to the study.”

Yesterday, Salon published a great article that argues convincingly that the internet has been a boon for both patients and doctors.  More doctors should read it; otherwise, we’re just perfecting our horse buggies.

(I’m grateful to Luetrell T. for pointing me to the Salon article.)