You and Dr. Google – Friend or Foe?

Posted on  May 23, 2018


“…Well, I looked it up and I think I have (insert name of disease here, probably fatal).”

Now, insert groans from doctors around the world.

Medical professionals have a love/hate relationship with Dr. Google. On one hand, patients searching their symptoms online indicates that they are attentive to their own health and may be a deciding factor in them making a doctor’s appointment. On the other, technology is now creating the next wave of neurotic individuals.

Or is it?

It’s telling that a number of respected medical bodies have launched their own symptom checkers. This includes Harvard, the Mayo Clinic and the peak body of countries such as the UK. They encourage people to actively take control of their health issues and act upon them.

Google itself is launching services that allow people to check their own symptoms.  Google India has recently launched “Symptom Searcher.”  While it stresses that it is no replacement for professional medical advice, the fact remains that many people will take it as just that.

There are instances where Google could save lives. In Australia, the country with the highest incidence of melanoma, there is evidence that using the internet to search what a strange growth or discoloration may be can prompt people to go to the doctor.

We observe a range of individual stories featuring people who have rightfully insisted on further investigation they would not have otherwise pursued had they not weighed up the worst-case scenario.

So, should the medical professional be working with Dr. Google?

A recent study shows that self-diagnosis via the internet may do more harm than good. While acknowledging that it serves a purpose, the down side includes misdiagnosis that leads to self-treatment when a doctor may actually be needed.

People who search online for their symptoms might have what’s known as cyberchondria – medical anxiety after some online research. This, in itself, is not good for their general wellbeing. There are a number of reasons, however, why people search online before seeing a doctor, including not wanting to spend money and embarrassment about certain symptoms.

This leads back to the frustration doctors feel when a patient tells them he/she has used online symptom checkers. It’s understandable, yet it is possible that this is what led the person to be sitting in front of them. It’s fair to say that most people understand that an online symptom check is not medical advice; they are simply trying to understand whether or not to seek further advice.

In the end, there is one truth that will help you to decide what your relationship with Dr. Google is. It isn’t going away. Perhaps medical professionals should accept this as a reality.

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