The field of dentistry continues to change at an exponential rate. From the introduction of new technologies, to new and innovative understandings of normal and abnormal biology and diseases, to new diagnostic tests and protocols, dental providers and our patients are inundated with information at a prolific rate. For example, we might hear reports of a study showing that it is healthy to ingest eggs or drink a glass of red wine and then, a short time later, we may hear about yet another study stating that it is unhealthy to eat eggs or drink red wine. We are in the Information Age, and what was once found through time-consuming research by going to a library is now abundantly available at our fingertips in seconds. Our patients receive information quickly from commercials or search engine results, and some of that information can be credible (and some of it can also be less than credible), but the bottom line is that they are being fed information. They have been in your office telling you what they have and/or how to treat or prescribe medications for their condition based upon a magazine ad, television commercial, or information presented on a particular Web site. Healthcare information literacy is at an all-time high, and it’s important that dentists are not just aware of this fact but that they also know how to manage this matter with their patients. If we dismiss or mismanage information literate patients, we will lose the patients and their trust in us and our profession.
Healthcare Information Literacy
The Information Age is here, and healthcare information literacy available to our patients is not going away. The ability to retrieve and discern this information in a scholarly manner is difficult for many of our patients, including for those who deliver healthcare. As dentists, we are on the frontline of healthcare to disseminating credible, scientific, and proven information that aligns with our goal of benevolence. Dentists should not retrieve just any information (as many patients do on the Internet); rather, they should gather quality information that is substantive and credible. The skills to gather substantive and credible information is critical in problem solving and strategic planning.1 As doctors, we need to be critical thinkers, so it is incumbent on us to gather credible information and, in doing so, our critical thinking skills will improve, making us more effective as problem solvers for our patients.
The modalities from which patients and practitioners retrieve information have changed dramatically throughout the decades. The traditional brick-and-mortar library laden with books, magazines, and article files has been replaced by the more convenient, and always available, Internet. In the past, providers relied on the Dewey Decimal System, the periodicals, or the librarian to ascertain credible information, often taking hours. In today’s fast-paced age of instant gratification and want-it-yesterday mentality, most people now rely almost solely on the Internet as their primary source of information.1 As doctors, we should take more time than our patients to become very involved in scholarship and theories (related to dentistry) and to evaluate the information we are retrieving, whether the resource is the library, journals, textbooks, the Internet, or perhaps from our colleagues. In my opinion, we need to devote time and energy to this process so that we are better prepared for our patients and their questions.
As dentists, we have to manage every aspect of our small business, from taxes to accountants, to our suppliers and office team members. As we know, we have to manage our patients as well, and this is just another issue that needs to be handled in ways that keep us out of trouble, minimize miscommunication, and prevent the loss of patients from the practice. The first way to manage our patients’ thirst for information and the want-it-yesterday mentality is to be proactive by becoming information savvy ourselves. We can do this by being current on the latest research, recommendations, and treatment options. The Presidential Committee on Information Literacy: Final Report2 stated, “To be information literate, a person must be able to recognize when information is needed, and to have the ability to locate, evaluate, and effectively use the needed information.” As healthcare professionals, it is our responsibility to have, and to be working with, the most current information available from credible sources. The development of information gathering skills for our profession is essential to 2 core business processes: problem solving and planning.2 The more information literate we become, the more responsive and positive we can be to our patients when they enter our office with printouts and stories that they have collected from the Internet.
A second way to manage healthcare information literacy of our patients is to understand that there is no easy answer. Healthcare information literacy is complex, and we need to consider the multiple roles assumed by those whose knowledge is being assessed.3 In other words, we need to understand that our patients have concerns and are educating themselves; therefore, it is important that we do not dismiss and treat every patient in the same way. As we know, there is a vast amount of information available online that is often produced and offered via a variety of sources, all with a range of different editorial oversight procedures.4 If a patient comes to our office with a printout from a source that is not credible, and the information is deemed to be inaccurate, we do not want to alienate that patient by simply stating that the information is wrong. Instead, we need to use the opportunity to diplomatically discuss the topic(s) at hand with the patient while providing credible education.
Be a Healthcare Team That Provides Credible Education
A final way that dentists can manage healthcare information literacy is through educating our patients. Because of patients who have come into my office with information printed from the Internet—which is something that you may have experienced as well—I have learned to simply praise their proactive steps to learn more and to thank them for sharing the information. Then, I simply share my concern compassionately, while providing a fact-based education in a manner that will not leave them feeling belittled or alienated. Our patients appreciate it when they are made to feel safe and comfortable in bringing in and sharing information with us.
As information literacy increases, our patients’ desire to educate themselves with any information will continue to grow. It is important that healthcare workers realize that the amount of information available to most patients is growing at an exponential rate and, with it, the rate of misinformation is also growing rapidly.
We play a critical role in healthcare information literacy with our patients by becoming more information literate ourselves, identifying and being sympathetic with our patients and their concerns, and in educating our patients. As doctors, we need to be highly educated with quality fact-based information so that we are better prepared for our information-savvy patients who may come in presenting alternative treatments or philosophies that may differ from what we should (or would) prescribe. Managing these patients diplomatically, and with compassion, is paramount to maintaining a successful and growing practice with a healthy reputation in the community.
- Zabel D. A reaction to information literacy and higher education. Journal of Academic Librarianship. 2004;30(1):17-21.
- The American Library Association’s Presidential Committee on Information Literacy. Presidential Committee on Information Literacy: Final Report. Washington, DC; January 10, 1989. ala.org/acrl/publications/whitepapers/presidential. Accessed on August 4, 2014.
- Brown CA, Dickson R. Healthcare students’ e-literacy skills. J Allied Health. 2010:39(3):179-184.
- Kubiszewski I, Noordewier T, Costanza R. Perceived credibility of Internet encyclopedias. Computer & Education. 2011;56(3):659-667. DOI: 10.1016/j.compedu.2010.10.008
Disclosure: Dr. Capehart reports no disclosures.