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The perils of Dr Google

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Dr Natasha Kate, Consultant Psychiatrist, Masina Hospital opens up about the detrimental effects Google can have on an individual’s health

We live in a time when the answers for the ‘best coffee in town’ to ‘what to wear on the first date’ are just a click away. This is resulting in the increasing number of people who are turning to Google to answer their health queries.

Megha*, 48, had visited Masina Hospital for a consultation as she was terribly anxious and angry. She’d been to multiple specialists in the past three months with no solution for her unexplained headaches. After a quick search of Google and WebMD, she was convinced she either had multiple sclerosis or a brain tumour and both were being missed despite a number of brain scans and examinations. Despite other causes like migraines, tension, irregular eating habits and sinus issues, she chose to focus on the first result that showed up on Google when you type in “causes of unexplained bad headaches”. She believed doctors tend to misdiagnose patients quite often as it was something she read on the internet.

When nobody found anything seriously wrong with her and as she further grew extremely anxious, and was referred to me, a psychiatrist which in-turn made her feel more unheard.

However, while she was pulling out papers from her massive case file, she was squinting to read the names of the doctors and their prescriptions. This led to inquiring about her vision, leading her to admit she had difficulty reading smaller print, like the newspaper since a few months. A quick eye examination revealed that she needed glasses! Her headaches were just a symptom of her problems with her eyesight, but the sleep she had lost and the money she had spent were all part of the internet generated worry. Two months later, she was headache free and now knows all too well the problems that can arise from substituting a real-life doctor with the internet.

When one is unwell, it’s natural to be concerned but it is important to remember to seek professional help and not generic information from internet. This is because every individual’s case might be different which is why it is necessary to seek professional, more personalised help. Google cannot understand an individual’s problems, hence it lacks the ability to provide a correct diagnosis. There are a number of reputable medical websites that include brief overviews of various conditions for individuals with a general curiosity, or more detailed information helping people who have been properly diagnosed. Since many simple and harmless conditions share symptoms with more serious ailments and are listed side-by-side, users without proper medical consultation may assume the worst rather than the likely diagnosis.

Web-diagnosis can cause a great deal of distress and anxiety in users who believe themselves to have an incurable and serious illnesses. This condition is termed as cyberchondria, which is the unfounded escalation of concerns about common symptoms based on review of search results and literature online. We all have an inherent concern about our health. Seeing our worst concerns pop up when we put in our symptoms in a search engine would worry anyone.

Another part of the problem, is that people not only Google their symptoms and diagnosis, but also their treatments. On the internet, anyone can call themselves an expert on anything. Almost every day, we see patients who’ve made things worse for themselves after reading something online. From seeing young girls who cause chemical burns and scars after following the results of ‘instant treatment for acne’ to advanced untreatable cancers after following results for ‘natural, cheap treatment for cancer’, we’ve seen people suffer because they chose to put their faith on a search result and an online expert. Every doctor nowadays is ready for a situation where patients or their family members have questioned their medical advice or treatments because of something they’ve read, and who choose to follow AI search algorithms and faceless strangers on the internet, just because a well-designed website had good reviews. We’ve been taught to respect the written word and when we read something from what seems to be a reputable source, we tend to believe it.

Our aim is not to discourage people from taking an active interest in their health. However, instead of a wide-reaching Google search, it makes more sense for one to consult their doctor for a list of trustworthy sites they can head to when concerned.

If the information on the internet you find is worrying or concerning, you could always print it out and take it to your doctor who can clarify its accuracy. You’ll soon build up a list of reliable health sources that you can visit before heading to your doctor. Communicate your problems and symptoms better, and ask your doctor the questions you want answered, to try to assuage the concerns you may have about your health, in person. Learn to be patient and don’t expect instant results. Aim to work collaboratively with you treating doctor, not competitively. This will help develop a better doctor-patient relationship, which in-turn will benefit your health.

The internet is a great source of information, but it can’t ask all the right questions, and neither can you. What’s worse, is that it can end up delaying your diagnosis and treatment. Whether it’s because of fear or laziness, delaying a visit to the doctor or using the internet alone for treatment, will only cause trouble down the line if something really is wrong. For once, Google might not have all the answers.

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