Power to the patients? Does active seeking for health information on the internet make patients more powerful in their relationship with their general practitioners?
Western governments and patient advocates use the discourse of patient empowerment, and the Internet is often presented as a lever for that empowerment, but there is insufficient substantive empirical evidence to support the notion that the Internet, as an information source, is actually empowering patients in their relationship with their general practitioners (GPs). On the one hand we investigate whether the Internet is a valuable source of health information for patients. On the other hand we explore to what degree information is a source of power in the patient-doctor relationship, and to what extent having better informed patients leads to a power shift in favour of the patient, thus undermining the doctor’s traditionally dominant position in the patient-doctor relationship. In our literature research we distinguish three interlinked parts: first, literature on the use of the Internet as a cybermedical space (Miah and Rich) and a source of health information, second, particularly in medical sociology, the power issues linked to the medical profession, and third, the concepts of power and empowerment. For our research we have chosen a mixed approach, combining different qualitative and quantitative research methods. In the first phase we plan to observe consultations between general practitioners and their patients and to develop an ethnographic approach. In this same phase, for the purposes of comparison we wish to investigate the attitude of healthy people to the Internet as a source of health information, and to the patient-doctor relationship. This will be done by means of Internet surveys, focus groups and face-to-face interviews with healthy people. In the first part of the second phase, the same subjects will be investigated in respect of patients, by means of Internet surveys, focus groups, faceto-face interviews and expert interviews. In the second part of the second phase, general practitioners will be researched through face-to-face interviews with GPs, expert interviews and doctors’ participation through presentation.