Browsing Google has become an instinct the moment we face a problem, especially medical issues. Instead of calling our General Practitioner (GP) for every headache, upset stomach, or mood swing, we prefer to bombard Dr. Google with our queries which often ends up in a panic. It aligns with the popular joke that if you browse websites such as WebMD or NHS for long enough, you will be convinced you have cancer.
Unsurprisingly, Dr. Google is wrong most of the time or 74% of the time according to an Australian study of popular diagnostic websites and apps in Australia. Michella Hill, the lead author of the study from Australia's Edith Cowan University, said the findings should give people pause for thought. "While it may be tempting to use these tools to find out what may be causing your symptoms, most of the time they are unreliable at best and can be dangerous at worst," she said.
The authors also emphasized the holistic nature of a diagnosis, "Diagnosis is not a single assessment, but rather a process requiring knowledge, experience, clinical examination and testing, and the passage of time, impossible to replicate in a single online interaction."
What is a Google doctor?
"Dr. Google" is a satirical term given for googling one's symptoms and treating Google as a doctor instead of consulting a real doctor. Everyone is guilty of searching for the cause of aches and pains or even reasons behind certain bodily functions happen - "What causes hiccups?", "Why are my gums hurting?" and the list continues.
But this can backfire sometimes. Albeit holding a vast amount of information, Dr. Google lacks the ability to put that information into context. It's quite simple to find a list of conditions related to our symptoms but we don't have any medical training to understand the other factors that are crucial in diagnosis, like personal and family history.
Is Googling symptoms a bad idea?
Mostly yes and partly no. It makes sense for us to google our symptoms out of concern for our own well-being but we mustn't look at it as a diagnosis and more of a starting point.
With the democratization of knowledge through the web, people will inevitably try to get answers by an online symptom checker for their queries whether that is "reasons for acne" or “why does my back hurt?”. Riza Conroy, MD, in her article, What your doctor wants you to know about 'Dr. Google' advises that doctors should view this as patients becoming partners in their own medical care. If they do come in with questions, have a fruitful conversation on the sources they used and what questions they have, she advises medical practitioners.
However, the downside of googling your symptoms is stumbling upon invalid or non-certified websites. Inaccurate and sensational information can be really harmful for a patient's perception of their health; it can either make them agitated or disregard their symptoms.
What is the best medical search engine?
Dr. Conroy suggests that to not rely on a search engine as a replacement to a clinic consultation even if it is a reputed medical search engine. However, she says, it is acceptable to use these engines to research more about your medical condition after a proper diagnosis.
As a practicing physician, there are particular websites that she recommends to patients for further reading such as - The National Institutes of Health, American Diabetes Association, The medication database Drugs.com, MedlinePlus, part of the U.S. Library of Medicine, The American Academy of Family Physicians and websites of other established academic medical centers like The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, such as the Mayo Clinic.
Doctors that are aware of their patient's symptom checker usage can verify if the patient is using it correctly by asking follow-up questions - “What program did you use?” and “how did you decide whether it was valid?”
Kevin Pho, MD further advises doctors to encourage patients to ask questions on the information they've found. "The doctor is really the filter that can provide context for the patient. It can be overwhelming how the symptom checkers list thousands of diagnoses," adds Dr. Pho.
Do doctors Google stuff?
Well, they're definitely not omniscient individuals so yes, they do google things. According to a study called, Websites Most Frequently Used by Physician for Gathering Medical Information, physicians use medical websites to improve their knowledge and look at updated research on illnesses. Unlike us, they don't use general search engines, which draws results from a mix of unverified and verified sources. Rather they rely on targeted sites that are heavily fact-checked and reliable.
The study showed that 96.7 % of physicians using a targeted site and consider their online information source as being accurate. Some secondary data sources they used were - UpToDate, Medscape, WebMD, Mdconsult, and Emedicine. Doctors also turned to medical journals Pubmed, Ovid, and Medline to gather extra information.
What does the medical community think of free online symptom checkers?
Suneel Dhand, MD feels that people turning to the internet to learn about illnesses and health tips is a natural progression of how we've come to use the internet. He feels that most doctors are reluctant to accept this and project their disapproval of it on the patients.
Dhand believes that patients asking questions is normal and doctors should be open to a dialogue where patients demand information and ask follow-up questions. Professionals may have to deal with annoying patients that take things too far and demand unnecessary tests but they are the exception, not the rule.
Michella Hill, the lead author of the study on Google diagnosis, believes that online health information can have a place in the modern health system. "These sites are not a replacement for going to the doctor, but they can be useful in providing more information once you do have an official diagnosis," she said in an interview with Medical Xpress.
Charles Bareis, MD, FACP, chief medical officer of Vanguard MacNeal Hospital in Chicago, agrees with Hill. He says, “Any time a patient can be more informed about their health and what their symptoms might mean, I think that's a good thing.” Healthcare providers' feelings toward doctor google should be irrelevant while treating patients who have referred to a symptom checker because "patients are doing it anyway,” according to Dr. Bareis.
Doctors need to be compassionate with patients coming to them with diagnoses
Dr. Bevill, whose practice, SAMA HealthCare Services in El Dorado, Ark., recently added a symptom checker to its website, agreed. “Why not embrace it?” he said. “Just look at all this as a tool.” Doctors that have accustomed to this trend of online medical advice advise reluctant medical professionals to cooperate with the patients' discussion of their internet information.
Dr. Pho says, “If they come to the office with a stack of papers, you need to sit down with them and look through it. Don't tell them not to [use symptom checkers], because they're going to do it anyway.”
If a health professional expresses disapproval of the patients' tools, it can weaken the doctor-patient relationship and instill fear in the patient. Michael Smith, MD, chief medical editor of WebMD, adds, “If physicians avoid the topic, patients will not feel comfortable discussing what they find and may use [symptom checkers] inappropriately.”
Since we are in the midst of a pandemic, people are hesitant to visit a doctor at a clinic or hospital as stepping out is still risky. So, people who are experiencing paranoia about contracting the virus, are channeling their worries to Dr. Google.
Covid-19 has intensified the use of Dr. Google
With the outbreak of Covid-19, a novel and unpredictable virus, people are more scared than ever. A cough or a sneeze is enough for people to consult Dr. Google to check if they’re infected by the Coronavirus.
However, there isn’t a fixed list of symptoms of the virus as scientists are still researching it. So, when newer symptoms show up in the news such as diarrhea and loss of sense of smell, people get anxious and start googling away their symptoms.
We are returning to normalcy but still haven’t developed a vaccine for the virus. So, venturing to work and interacting with others is bound to make people concerned about getting the virus. Performing symptom checks could be their way to calm themselves down but ironically, it makes them more troubled.
“A number of people who are overly distressed or anxious about their health perform excessive or repeated health-related searches on the internet, only to become more distressed or frightened, which we define as cyberchondria,” Dr. Ishanya Raj, a psychologist at Allahabad’s Moti Lal Nehru Medical College, explains to the Times of India.
More testing and PSAs by doctors can mitigate tendencies to self-diagnose
Cyberchondria existed before the pandemic too but Dr. Raj feels that it is becoming more prevalent during the times of coronavirus. He’s worried that this fear will lead to stress, resulting in high blood pressure, headaches, and a weakened immune system - the opposite of what we need to prevent coronavirus.
Despite its vast knowledge, the internet is not factually correct, in fact, it is filled with incomplete and false information. However, fear-driven individuals aren’t thinking about fact-checking at the moment. Rather, they’re looking at the rising cases and death toll, hoping to not become a number on the statistics.
To stop the epidemic of self-detection of illnesses, doctors and media professionals need to encourage people to be more responsible while seeking diagnoses. Another solution could be to provide testing at residential buildings so that people have more certainty about their condition and don’t google their symptoms all day.