How doctor–patient relationships are changing

Research & Insights

How doctor–patient relationships are changing

Technology is changing the way patients interact with GPs in Australia. How does this affect you?

Health Agenda magazine
November 2017

When your grandparents – or even your parents – were growing up, the doctor–patient relationship was simple: they talked and you listened. However, changes in society, modern technology and GP practice are now combining to create a whole new doctor–patient relationship.

More informed patients

One change is the way you use your GP’s advice. While in the past many people wouldn’t have dreamed of questioning what a doctor proposed, a study by market researchers Roy Morgan found that 18% of people seeing a GP now also research their condition online – and that number has increased by a third since 2011.

This has its drawbacks, such as trusting unreliable information, but it has led to a more collaborative health service, according to Doctor Edwin Kruys, vice president of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners.

“People are more informed about health issues in general now and are better at asking the right questions, like ‘Do I really need this test?’” he says. “This is an important new change but some digital information is unreliable so a new role for your doctor is helping you find the right resources to use.”

This may include sites like or NPS MedicineWise, which Dr Kruys says help people safely navigate their way through the healthcare system.

Digital doctors

An area of medicine expected to explode in the future is telemedicine where, instead of seeing your doctor in person, you speak to them online via webcam. This service is common in rural communities and is also becoming mainstream as modern life gets busier.

Dr James Freeman, creator of telehealth service GP2U, thinks telemedicine could further affect some elements of the doctor-patient relationship.

“Right now, we make it difficult for patients to do what we suggest,” he says. “Take long-term medication. For example, 50% of people who start medication to treat high blood pressure come off it within a year – and one reason [for that] is how hard it is to renew their prescription. By the time they’ve travelled to the doctor, sat waiting, gone to the pharmacy, waited, travelled home, they’ve lost four hours of work. Telemedicine makes it far easier.”

Another doctor-patient barrier removed by seeing a doctor online seems to be embarrassment. “People tend to be more willing to open up on the internet – some of the things they put on Facebook prove that,” says Dr Freeman. “But this also seems to translate into how openly they talk to a doctor they see on-screen. This type of medicine really helps reach patients who feel stigmatised and I think it could dramatically change how we treat depression in smaller communities, where people might not want it known that they need help.”

Of course, none of these changes mean your GP is going to disappear completely. One of the biggest hurdles to the explosion of telemedicine is that its use in non-remote areas isn’t funded by Medicare; plus, many of us still like – and need – human contact when we’re worried or sick. But, as Dr Freeman says, “there was a time when we couldn’t imagine not going into a shop to buy things and now look at us.”

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