As a professional blogger, I give out a whole lot of advice online. At the blog you’re now reading, I share advice about online marketing and web content and design. At other blogs I write, I tell people the importance of bone density tests and the growing evidence of a connection between oral health and cancer, how to teach schoolchildren about their eyes, and the effects of federal health care funding cuts on U.S. territories. The web is one big network of advice.
After all, people come online either to play or to get information. If you have the kind of website that benefits from games, you know it. If not, you probably have some good advice for someone.
But there’s a difference between valuable information and a diagnosis. Giving specific individual medical advice online may be comparable to giving such advice during a casual encounter in a parking lot — which is to say you could get sued for it.
On the other hand, the majority of Americans now look for information online before they consult an expert. A Pew study found that more than 80% of internet users have looked for health information, and a UC Davis study found that about 70% of patients who went online for health information planned to follow up by asking their doctors about what they learned. 40% printed out documents to share with their health care professionals.
Modern consumers, including consumers of medical services, like to be informed. They want more input into their treatment and strategies.
Your patients and clients will look online for information, no matter what. Your decision, then, is whether you’d like them to find that information at your website, where you can have some control over it, or if you would prefer to have to deal with misinformation they found somewhere else. It can save you a lot of time if you can say, “Sure, there have been speculations about chromium and muscle mass, but you can read the most current information on my website.”
So how can you get the benefits of being a great source of expert information in your field — and give the benefit of that information to your clients — without getting into trouble?
There’s a difference, legally speaking, between consultation and education.
- Your website can share information, backed with sources and research references if that works with your style, with complete confidence. You might want to avoid sweeping subjective statements like, “Everybody needs cosmetic surgery.”
- Your website can present facts in a neutral way. You can, for example, say that “eating healthy foods such as fish and green vegetables has been shown to correlate with general eye health.” You might not want to say, “Marigold essence tablets are the vision-restoring miracle of the future!”
- You can make sure to have a statement somewhere on your website saying that your posts or papers are offered “for informational purposes” and encouraging readers to meet with their doctor to determine the best option for their particular circumstances.
Here’s the bottom line: don’t make diagnoses online. Do have a disclaimer on your website. And do respond to comments asking for specific legal or medical advice for a specific individual with, “Please make an appointment so we can discuss your situation thoroughly.”
Now go ahead and give your readers some good advice. That’s what they came online for.