For several informative empowered patient stories, see the Comments at bottom of this post.

CNN’s Empowered Patient column, by medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen, contains good, if not groundbreaking, advice, plus the occasional exaggeration or misconception.

For example, here on e-patients.net, Charlie Smith praised the Empowered Patient column on misdiagnosis; Gilles Frydman dismantled the tips on “savvy medical surfing”; and John Grohol critiqued the article about “how to find a doctor online.”

I think it is excellent that CNN allows reader comments, which are sometimes well-argued attacks on the content of the article. CNN also features a “From the Blogs” section, although the links are not always relevant since they are machine-generated. Bottom line, CNN is on the road to having a very good consumer resource on their site.

However, it could be even better.


Let’s take the recent “5 mistakes women make at the doctor’s office.” I don’t love the title, but I understand the instinct to scare readers about their personal failings (see my own small role in “Lies Parents Tell Themselves About Why They Work”).

Cohen opens with a story about a mom who was intimidated by doctors but screwed up her courage, identified a misdiagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome and got her daughter treated for ulcerative colitis. The empowered patient triumphs, right? Read on.

Cohen goes on to list the 5 mistakes: women don’t question doctors, tend to over-research, don’t recognize gender bias, interpret their own symptoms, and don’t trust their intuition.

Here’s where things get interesting. In the 24-hour period during which comments are accepted, more than 50 people offered their personal stories, observations, and wisdom.

“Elle” clarifies that it probably wasn’t a misdiagnosis, but rather a too-generic one.

“Mapslaura” throws even more cold water when she writes:

I am appalled that the new doctor removed the poor kid’s colon. I had ulcerative colitis as a teen. It was really painful and a difficult disease. However, after a lot a work I found meds that help and then diet. Diet was so important. By my mid-twenties things were so much better. By my forties my colon had healed so well you couldn’t find the scars anymore. Now in my 60s I have a pretty healthy IG tract. The second doctor’s treatment, in my opinion, was wrong, too extreme, and the girl will suffer other problems as she gets older.

“JG, MD” writes, “If there is no randomized study with evidence then this article is opinion and flawed. To say that these are “mistakes that women make” IS a statement that is biased against women. In my practice, men and woman make these mistakes equally. It is not a problem with gender. That is a generalization and a stereotype and cannot fit the behavior of all women or men.”

“Anonymous” writes, “It’s not helpful to say that women over-research AND should trust their intuition. Those are competing pieces of advice.”

Many comments echo the “I am woman, hear me roar” sentiment, however:

“Karen” tells of a friend who pushed her doctor for the appropriate tests to confirm her suspicion that she had non-Hodgkins Lymphoma (after researching a persistent rash online).

“Debbie” writes, “Internet research is NOT a bad thing, especially when it comes to medications and side effects… Ladies, RESEARCH….ASK QUESTIONS…SEEK EXPERT HELP!! No one cares more about your well-being that YOU do!!

“Carol K” writes about a doctor who, when asked about a treatment, responds by saying, “Who has the degree, me or you?” Her intuition led her to insist on a test which revealed a rare blood disorder.

If the comments were still turned on, I would write that Pew Internet research does indeed support the assertion that women are more likely than men to research health information online (and thanks for citing our research!). However, I take issue with Dr. Pamela Peeke’s observation that “her female patients are more likely to become overwhelmed by what they read.” In fact, we asked that exact question in a survey and found that there is NO difference between women and men:

At any point in your last search for health information online did you feel overwhelmed by the amount of information you found online?

25% of internet users who have researched health information online said yes (26% of males; 25% of females)

(Methodology: n=1,990 internet users surveyed by phone August 1-31, 2006)

It’s important to note that there were no differences between men and women for any of the following questions:

74% of e-patients felt reassured that they could make appropriate health care decisions,

56% say they felt confident to raise new questions or concerns about a health issue with their doctor

56% say they felt relieved or comforted by the information they found online.

51% say they felt eager to share their new health or medical knowledge with others.

22% say they felt frustrated by a lack of information or an inability to find what they were looking for online.

18% say they felt confused by the information they found online.

10% say they felt frightened by the serious or graphic nature of the information they found online.

I hope that Elizabeth Cohen and CNN see reader comments for what I think they are –improvements. What other improvements do you suggest?

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