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Dr Google will see you now


Searching your symptoms on the internet is

Whenever I need to know anything nowadays, I mostly just look on the internet and sometimes I ask my virtual PA ‘Alexa’ to look for me!  However, you need to be very careful in acceptance of what is credible information and what isn’t.

As a relatively experienced health blogger and activist, I like to think of myself as ‘internet savvy’, so I occasionally find myself using ‘Dr Google’ to diagnose my aches, pains and unusual feelings.  I mostly find there are no real or definitive answers online for my issues.  Although I seem to learn something on each piece of research, I also find some really worrying stuff.

On my most recent online symptom check for lower left abdominal spasms, I discovered I was pregnant with an alien baby! 

The internet is really powerful but also really dangerous.  For example if you look up “best treatment for cancer”, you have an astonishing 300 million offerings. Right there with rigorous, evidence-based sites, there are those offering fermented foods and DIY cancer cure kits. Worried patients sometimes need help to distinguish between sensible advice and fanciful claims.

When I combine my own experience with what I read on patient forums, I can see that internet searching is not for the faint of heart.  Some people are already in a state of anxiety before they started searching Dr Google’s archives, and what they find has probably made their anxiety worse.  In fact, the rise of the internet has created a new term for those who worry themselves sick and continually misdiagnose symptoms on the internet –  ‘Cyberchondriac’. 

However …..

Even when we know ‘googling’ our symptoms won’t end well, we don’t seem to care, we just need answers!  Searching authoritative sites is therefore really important and the availability of proper medical information online is actually putting more power in the hands of patients.  It’s how we as patients exploit it that is really important.  Just as you can find examples of ‘cyberchondria’ online, you can also find examples of patient power in a doctor’s office.  Worryingly, you can also find examples of ‘Dr Google’ being right after being dismissed by real doctors, sometimes resulting in patient illness or even death.  

The medical community need to accept that searching for more information is a natural patient instinct, not a slight against one’s doctor. The profession will have to get better at educating the next generation of doctors now that Dr Google is here to stay and, I think, to help. That said, I don’t believe the internet will ever replace the profound human dimension of the doctor-patient relationship. 

Tips for online searching:

1.  Don’t actually use internet search engines if you can help it, go to a reputable site and then search that.

2.  Try to be specific as possible because vague search terms will result in frightening answers, and in practice any symptom can be read as a sign for nearly every single horrible illness, or a worsening or recurrence of an existing condition.

3. Less common conditions are less common, and minor symptoms often resolve themselves in time. If you have more worrying symptoms, or if your symptoms are changing or progressing, then go ‘offline’ i.e. visit your GP or primary care facility. If you’re sure of your facts, be assertive until you’re convinced otherwise. However, accept that the internet may be wrong when you seek medical help. 

5.  If you’re someone with an already diagnosed serious illness, the worry that goes with that is quite understandable.  However, the same tips apply although you may now have established your own specific sources of advice in addition the general health areas. 

6. Charities and associations for specific conditions are also a good information source but just note they may not have the best or up to date simply because they have been granted a ‘charity’ or equivalent status, so be careful.  Patient forums can be ‘frighteningly good’ but they can also be ‘good at frightening’. Personally, I never compare myself to strangers on the internet.

I will not compare myself to strangers on the internet

Graphic courtesy of Emily McDowell

 

 

Be careful out there it’s dangerous 

Thanks for listening

Ronny

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