When Dr. Delos "Toby" Cosgrove started his career as a cardiothoracic surgeon in the 1970s, he found that the doctor-patient relationship was essentially a one-way street. "The doctor was the repository of information," says Cosgrove, now the CEO of the Cleveland Clinic. "The patients came to you, you told them what they should do and they generally did it." By the time Cosgrove was ready to hang up his scalpel—he stopped operating last December—the basic equation had changed dramatically. Most of Cosgrove's patients in recent years have been sophisticated consumers of medical services who did their own research and arrived in his office armed with detailed information about their conditions, their treatment options and even Cosgrove himself. Cosgrove realized just how much things had changed when one patient complimented him on his choice of living-room furniture. "I was speechless," says Cosgrove, whose home had won an architectural award. The patient had come upon an article about the home while checking out Cosgrove online.
You may not be interested in the color of your doctor's curtains, but chances are you did some homework of your own before your last checkup. On a typical day, an estimated 8 million American adults seek health information online, where the number of health-related Web sites now tops 60,000. And the explosion in health news and information has hardly been limited to the Web. Newspapers, magazines, the nightly news and cable TV are awash in reports about new drugs, newly discovered genes and the risks and benefits of this or that new surgical procedure or exercise regimen.
It's estimated that the amount of new medical information doubles about every five years. Americans, who have almost unlimited access to this ever expanding, often bewildering, trove of data, are learning how to use it to take control of their own health and health care as never before. They collaborate with their doctors, who have come to expect well-informed patients. They form support groups to share ideas and information about living with chronic conditions like diabetes, and life-threatening illnesses like breast cancer. They design diet and exercise programs to increase their fitness level and reduce their risk of getting sick in the first place.
At the Cleveland Clinic, under a program called MyChart, patients are even given access (via a password-protected Web site) to their medical charts. They can get test results, renew prescriptions and request second opinions, among other options. This taboo-breaking initiative—110,000 participants so far, with thousands more signing up every month—has already shown results. Diabetes patients who use MyChart, for example, do a better job of controlling their glucose levels. "There's no question about the enormity of the change," says Cosgrove. "We've embraced this."
In the same spirit, NEWSWEEK over the years has responded to the need for more and better health news and information with cover stories and special issues (including our Health for Life series), and our redesigned and expanded Health Web page. This new column continues that tradition. It will be written by our award-winning team of veteran health and medical journalists. It will be newsy and topic-driven, a biweekly bulletin from the beats we cover—doctors' offices, hospitals and research centers, homes and neighborhoods—all the many places where American medicine is being refined and practiced. We'll write about successes and failures, cures and incurable diseases, quacks and geniuses. If there's a study we think is getting more attention than it deserves, we'll tell you so. If a good one's been overlooked, we'll tell you that, too. And the goal, always, will be to provide readers with the smartest, most useful and up-to-date health information possible. At a time when a patient can tour her surgeon's living room online and read her medical chart whenever she wants, it's the least we can do.