Dr. Google is as popular as ever — can real doctors adapt?

It’s easy to dismiss the Internet as a risky place to look for health information. As HealthTap founder Ron Gutman joked the first time we met, ”On the Internet, every headache becomes a brain tumor in four clicks or less.”

If you’ve ever done an online search for an unfamiliar ache, you can probably relate: That weird pain in your side could mean appendicitis, food poisoning or pregnancy.  That nasty rash on your arm could be poison ivy, a spider bite or cancer.

But despite “Dr. Google’s” shortcomings and concerns about so-called cyberchondria, the Web – and search engines in particular – remains a top destination for people seeking out  health information.  The Pew Internet & American Life Project this week reported that about a third of U.S. adults have gone online to look for health information. And, eight in 10 Internet users say their last health-related search began with a search engine – a figure that has not changed since Pew last asked that question in 2000, despite the rise of social media, health-specific content sites and startups. The report also found that those health searchers are reaching diagnoses that their doctors disagree with about one-fifth of the time.

Some physicians are making an effort to adapt to the new reality, but given the frequency with which people seem to page the doctor in the search box, more clinicians need to do the same. “Our relationships with patients was once entirely defined by our unique access to information,” said Bryan Vartabedian, a Texas physician who is active on Twitter. As patients access new information, their relationship with physicians is changing, he said. “The biggest challenge facing the health consumer in 2013 is online health literacy – understanding what’s reliable and what isn’t,” he added.

A few studies have attempted to evaluate the reliability of search engines but with mixed conclusions.  A 2001 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that using search engines to find medical information wasn’t efficient.  A study in 2006 found that when two medically trained doctors typed symptoms into a search box, Google was able to provide an accurate diagnosis 58 percent of the time. Other studies of varying quality have added other dimensions to the debate over time.

On one hand, the Web can help direct people to valuable information and studies that even their doctors may not be aware of. But search engines alone don’t give people enough ways of gauging a source’s reliability or providing the context they may need to make the most of sources that are actually good.

Dr. Vartabedian said he sees patients and first makes a diagnosis or discusses a condition, he warns them about the irrelevant information they’ll likely encounter online to stave off future concern and unnecessary questions.

Wendy Sue Swanson, a Seattle pediatrician, uses her hospital’s blog and Twitter to help her patients and others navigate online health information. She said that if Google can help patients feel more in control or nudge them into the doctor’s office, that’ s not a bad thing. “When you’re in a moment of fear, you don’t think about a specific site… they’re compulsive,” she said. “The benefit of being a clinician is that I know more about the sites and how realiable they are – but that’s where we’re not doing a great job.”

Tools that connect doctors with patients in HIPAA-compliant digital environments are growing – HealthTap, for example, helps patients directly ask doctors questions online, and Ringadoc lets people consult physicians via video conference. But they’re just beginning to appeal to doctors who are wiling to define their roles and organize their time differently.

Twitter is another way doctors are able to influence online health behavior en masse, but a recent study found that just 7 percent of doctors tweet (even though half use physician-only communities to learn and contribute information). If more patients could easily reach their doctors via email or other electronic messages, they might also be less inclined to search aimlessly for answers on the Web.

Meanwhile, insurance reimbursement and payment processes mostly don’t include electronic communication, and more systems and policies are needed to ensure patient privacy and assuage liability concerns.

As mobile adoption grows and digital natives age, a doctor willing to email you and curate online information isn’t just going to be a nice to have — for many, it will be a need to have.