When done right, the internet can be a useful alternative to seeing a doctor
Everyone occasionally experiences new symptoms that can’t be readily explained or ignored. In most cases, people seek initial medical guidance from the one source they consider authoritative, available, trustworthy and non-judgemental. We are, of course, talking about Google – which, for many adults, has become a de facto primary care doctor.
Who can blame them? Seeing a real doctor is often too inconvenient, time-consuming and expensive to justify unless you believe your health is in serious danger. As insurance deductibles continue to rise, putting formal medical care further out of reach for most families on a budget, the need for free and reliable health information has become especially urgent. But is the advice available online actually practical – or even accurate? And how well do people without medical degrees navigate the seemingly endless, often contradictory stream of online health information?
In our experience, the answer is: not so well. By the time they reach our offices, most patients have already researched their symptoms online and reached some conclusions about the likely cause. They’re often completely wrong.
A quick trip to your favourite search engine illustrates how easily the process of self-diagnosis can go off the rails. Most people seeking information about their symptoms aren’t trying to become experts but just want practical guidance and advice. A top Google search result for “headache”, however, begins with the unhelpful (and questionable) assertion that there are “over 150 types of headaches” – then attempts to catalogue many of them.
Medicine is also complicated, and online articles often can’t account for the unique context in which each symptom occurs. Are you a healthy 25-year-old experiencing a cough after travelling abroad? Or a 65-year-old smoker with a cough who just started a new blood pressure medication? The evaluations are completely different for these two patients – though the search results may be the same.
Some popular sites are even more misdirected. A top 10 search result for “cough” offers lung cancer and cystic fibrosis as the first two explanations. Though one should always consider these possibilities, they’re almost always much further down the list.
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