11/05/2014 06:03 EST | Updated 01/05/2015 05:59 EST

Don't Worry if Your Doctor Uses His Smartphone During an Appointment

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Co-authored by Paul Taylor, Personal Health Navigator at Sunnybrook.

Question: My son had what seemed to be an infection in his mouth. I took him to a walk-in medical clinic, and the doctor there had a look. The doctor took out his smartphone and started doing something on it, then announced his choice of antibiotic to prescribe. The doctor, by looking it up on his phone, kind of made me lose confidence in him. Was he just Googling? Is there some special site that medical professionals can access? Why didn't he just know what to prescribe? My wife says it's the same thing as if he looked in a book. But the use of the smartphone feels different. I mean, I could have looked at WebMD myself!

Answer: The doctor was likely accessing one of the many new medical resources that are now available online. But you shouldn't be alarmed when your doctor turns to the Internet before writing a prescription. In fact, it's actually a good thing.

"It means the doctor wants to be right as opposed to relying on his memory -- memory is fallible," explains Dr. David Juurlink, a staff physician and drug-safety researcher at Sunnybrook.

It's also a positive sign he looked up the information while you were watching him.


Flickr photo by neeravbhatt

That indicates the doctor felt comfortable admitting he doesn't know everything, "and that is a trait every physician should have," says Dr. Juurlink. "The three most powerful words a doctor can say are: 'I don't know'."

Indeed, a cautious approach - and the willingness to double-check - reduces the risk of the doctor making a mistake that could jeopardize your health.

From your question, it's clear that you feel very uncomfortable with the doctor relying on the Internet. It's true there's a lot of junk on the web. However, it's also an invaluable source of data if you know where to look and you have the expertise to discern what's reliable.

"Twenty years ago a doctor would have to pull a book from a shelf -- and that book could easily have been out-of-date," says Dr. Juurlink. "Now, in a matter of seconds, we can access information that is current and accurate. So why not use it?"

It's impossible to say which specific website, or app, the doctor consulted to select an antibiotic for your son.

"There are many good websites that doctors can use as resources -- some of them are free, and some of them are not," says Dr. Juurlink. "Every doctor has a list of sites that they are comfortable with, that they know how to navigate and they have found to be useful."

In some cases, physicians are given special access to certain sites through their professional organizations or hospital affiliations.

Dr. Juurlink says one of his favorite online resources, provided by way of Sunnybrook, is called UpToDate, an excellent resource that contains reference materials for physicians. "It is a spectacular resource," he says. "If you can think of a condition, it's in UpToDate."

(If you're curious about other web-based resources that are popular among physicians, you may want to check out a recent article published Nov. 17 in the Wall Street Journal, Health-Care Apps That Doctors Use.)

As a specialist in drug safety, Dr. Juurlink knows a lot about prescription medications. Yet he is the first to acknowledge: "There are more things I don't know about drugs than I do know." And today's Internet allows him to fill in those knowledge gaps when a specific question arises.

In many respects, the recent expansion of on-line medical resources can be seen as an encouraging development that has the potential to reduce medical errors.

So don't be annoyed the next time your physician reaches for a smartphone. There is a good chance the doctor is tapping into the latest, most up-to-date, medical information that applies to you.

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