Dr. Google Will See You Now

by Maxwell Cohen - Naturopathic medical student | Follow on Twitter

Dr. Google isn’t going away, so let’s get in the game and build up reliable resources and a positive mainstream reputation.

MORE AND MORE PEOPLE ARE USING THE INTERNET FOR HEALTHCARE – often to “diagnose” themselves and decide on whether or not to seek treatment with a physician.

I can attest that this is a real phenomenon and something my generation of doctors have to contend with. Patients come into their office visit already sure of what the attending is going to (or should) say, and are surprised and even incredulous if the trained physician with years of experience contradicts what WebMD or Wikipedia told them.

The internet and social media is affecting the medical field — especially as a patient — and there are some distinct advantages and disadvantages to be had. For this I’m going to use the Google search example of “lower right stomach pain”.

This is what the search returns:

Dr. Google turns up many diagnoses for lower right stomach pain

Dr. Google turns up many diagnoses for lower right stomach pain

 

Advantages

By using the internet (and credible sources) you can learn about both your symptoms and potential conditions that require immediate care. I’m certain that the above Google search has saved lives by convincing people to seek medical attention who may have not otherwise. By using the instantly accessible resources, you are able to quickly see if your symptoms match a particular condition.

Furthermore, the vast amount of health information on the internet also has the ability to give individuals more personal empowerment than ever before. Your ND told you to go on a grain-free diet to help your digestive symptoms? Great! Here’s 17523 blogs and websites specifically dedicated to grain-free recipes, success stories and support. This kind of community leads to greatly enhanced patient outcomes that couldn’t be achieved by the physician’s support alone.

Disadvantages

It is impossible to diagnose yourself with any certainty by just using a list of symptoms on the internet. It takes trained clinicians years of experience to get good at that skill. The same Google search for “lower right stomach pain” could send you to a doctor thinking you have appendicitis or a kidney stone when it’s really just gas. In fact the first thing this search returns is a list of relatively serious differential diagnoses including diverticulitis and ectopic pregnancy. A good doctor would quickly be able to distinguish between dangerous and benign conditions in-office without ever alarming the patient that these serious ailments were even a possibility.

Misinformation is another problem I see; WebMD is a good source of information, written for the layperson. So is Medline/Pubmed, and the CDC. What isn’t a reliable source is something like homeremedies.blogspot.com, especially if the author doesn’t cite their sources.

With so much information available it can be challenging to sort out what is trust-worthy and what is personal opinion or even just outright marketing material. Anyone can create and market a “supplement” and make almost any claims about it without any scientific support. A patient could easily wind up on a website claiming to “cure” their condition with un-vetted treatments.

Dr. Nick Riviera billboard (The Simpsons)

Another consideration is — since the cost of visiting a doctor can be a significant financial burden — a patient may look up their stomach pain and decide that it’s probably not worth going to a doctor yet because a blogger said that most of the time appendicitis self-resolves.

Worse yet, you could “diagnose” yourself with something less severe and never seek medical treatment (or end up in an ER with a preventable medical crisis).

In essence, having the entirety of human knowledge accessible from your smartphone, and the impetus to avoid costly treatments can turn your health into a bet against yourself.  Unfortunately, with a serious condition that can have nearly unlimited presentations (ie. most types of cancer), this is a losing bet which may end up costing you much more than just money in the long run.

Our society’s relationship with medical professionals is changing with technology. And this is a good thing. More information means more empowerment, when judiciously applied. It is not however, possible for an internet search to solve health issues or select the proper treatments, but it can sure assist people in making informed decisions.

It’s our responsibility as primary healthcare professionals to provide exceptional medical services and deliver high-quality resources for our patients and the general public to access.

We’re moving in the direction of being healthcare consumers rather than simply patients. In this transition education and information helps everyone — doctors and patients alike — make better, more healthful choices.

About the Author
Maxwell Cohen - Naturopathic medical student

Maxwell Cohen is a full-time Naturopathic medical student with a passion for integrative medicine and primary care. He’ll be graduating this year and after completing residency will be opening a family medicine clinic in Oregon. You can read more about his life as an N.D. student here. Until then he’ll be learning and practicing to become the best doctor he can.