I often get asked to throw cold water over the idea of “Dr Google”- the tendency to whack symptoms into a Google bar and self diagnose all manner of problems. Look, trawling the net certainly can be fodder for anxiety. As they say all roads through the world of Dr Google end in a brain tumour. After all websites all look the same whether you’re checking out a meta-analysis published in a prestigious high impact factor peer reviewed medical journal or a website spruiking ideas like pyrrole disorder and adrenal fatigue.
But we doctors have got to learn to chill out a bit. No, we are not the sole source of information on health any more. Nor should we be. And we should give our patients more credit. Sure there are anxiety disorders that see a tiny minority of patients obsessively researching their symptoms for hours on end. These few do need help but the vast majority of my patients are awesome at researching. I get 20 minutes with a patient – not enough to really solve trickier presentations. The well-considered pointers my patients bring me based on their own research can save us all lots of time and unnecessary tests. I’ve never found it anything other than helpful.
And patients find it incredibly useful. Take busy mums for example whose time is precious. If a child is sick or has a rash, you could bundle the kids in the car and drive to a medical centre or emergency department. Either way that’d be hours in a waiting room harbouring a heady cocktail of the nastiest viruses and bacteria currently available. Or alternately, a quick hop on line for either reassurance, a couple of pointers to relieve the itch or bring down a fever and lots of stress can be averted.
And I’m a beneficiary of easier access to information, too. I passed my medical degree by being a walking nerdy encyclopaedia of symptoms, signs, physiology and pharmacology. Since then, being a GP, my knowledge has expanded enormously in the things that matter most; the fact that your mum is going through chemo for breast cancer, or the reason a baby might cry all night when an examination reveals nothing medical. Why you’re exhausted when blood tests show up nothing. Being caring and compassionate and listening with full attention. And for the obscure nerdy facts, I have my online access. If a patient presents with a hoarse voice, in around 20 seconds I can have checked through all their medications and worked out whether one could be the culprit. No, it’s not on tap in my head! Thank goodness!
Plus technology means I get your test results, letters from some of your specialists, discharge summaries from your local hospital downloaded into your health record on my server with the push of a button. No more time consuming calling up chasing blood tests and asking for notes to be faxed through to me! Plus there ise less potential for slip ups due to medication interactions. If I prescribe an antidepressant that will interact with your blood pressure medication, my software gives me a polite alert that I might want to reconsider that!
So Dr Google, I am a fan! With a couple of caveats;
How to avoid a problem with Dr Google;
1. Who is publishing your go-to data? Lots of wellness sites come from a passionate ‘wellness warrior’ with stacks of
opinions and very little scientific knowledge. There are even doctors who publish stuff that is based more on their
belief systems than evidence. Not that it’s wrong, but you have to go in eyes wide open. I prefer websites from
medical journals, universities and Government bodies. Even drug company websites can be great because they’re so
tightly regulated! They cannot sell you stuff online!
2. Info is great but don’t jump in with two feet. If you see a ‘miracle cure’ online which allows you to make a purchase,
be very wary. Most online wellness sites with an e-store are businesses at the end of the day and selling you stuff is
their primary aim. Run the idea by your GP before you press ‘purchase.’
3. How much time are you spending googling medical stuff? Is it becoming a problem? Is it consuming your spare time
to the point you’re running out of time to do other stuff? Get help!