Submitted by Dr. Yan Baum, Kaiser Permanente

As a family physician, I am frequently asked by patients: “Doctor, what do you think about this? I checked the internet and it seems like cancer, is it? And the internet says this or that is a good treatment.”

Everyone does this and acts as Dr. Google! It’s a product of the revolutionary power of the information age we live in, where huge amounts of data are easily found using a modern search engine. Type in a few symptoms, like “abdominal pain,” and it will easily give you many potential answers. It is very convenient.

Housecalls with Dr. Google

We’ve all done it. We see a rash pop up or feel something weird in your gut and the first place we go for help, often right from our mobile phones… the internet. While more and more trustworthy health organizations are offering good, free advice on the internet, there’s still plenty of questionable advice out there skewed by either commercial interest or lack of understanding. And sometimes, the internet can cause unnecessary concerns, not to mention privacy issues by searching on personal medical issues on a device like a phone that can be easily traced back to its owner.

Who can you believe or trust? Make sure you find a trustworthy source.

The internet is a wonderfully powerful tool which removes all gatekeepers from the process of collecting information directly from the source. This is great, but it means everything is a free-for-all, and requires good judgment and experience to sift through.

For example, Wikipedia, which anyone can edit, is not a great place to get medical advice, nor is a website trying to sell you products, be it supplements or the latest drug. Make sure you check the source of your information—it should be a well-known, reputable organization. Like finding reliable political news, it is always a good approach to critically look at multiple points of view as inputs to your research and decision making.

woman on computer
The internet is a wonderfully powerful tool which removes all gatekeepers from the process of collecting information directly from the source, but there are things to be wary of as well. Photo courtesy: Kaiser Permanente

Take it with a grain of salt.

Entering symptoms into a computer can get you a diagnosis, but its accuracy is unknown. You can get a list of conditions you could have, but it can’t tell you anything for sure – a true diagnosis will often need some data from the patient like lab work and a physical exam.

You can Google, “why does my head hurt,” but will it include details specific to your case – such as a hard workout last night and lack of water today? When you meet with a healthcare provider you have a conversation about what could be going on—Google can’t do that (at least not yet).

Don’t let what you find cause concern.

When you look up stomach pains, you’ll find they can be caused by anything from hunger to gluten intolerance. It’s up to you to decide which of the causes sound most plausible—and too often, we escalate to more serious causes than what is really going on. Was your headache caused by a tumor? Was your diarrhea caused by a rare food-borne parasite? Sometimes the Google results can make things seem much worse than they are.

Your healthcare provider may have equally easy options.

So what is a Dr. Google to do? Do your own research if you like, educate yourself, and come prepared to your appointment. Then work with your provider to understand and resolve medical issues together—they are part of your team with the clinical experience Dr. Google lacks. Kaiser Permanente offers patients the options of secure online visits, care chat, or a 24/7 call-in consulting nurse phone line. Find a rash you don’t like? Snap a photo and add it to a care chat.  Check with your provider to see what’s available. Talking to a pro can be as easy as Google, just call us.

Be proud that you’re engaged in your health

The armies of Dr. Googles out there can be great patients as they are highly motivated and willing to spend time and energy to understand their medical issues and get involved in the process of improving their (and their families’) health. These patients are typically both more literate about health issues and actively working to better their health.  Skilled, experienced providers are confident in their abilities and quite willing to engage Dr. Google in a conversation about their concerns.

If you or a loved one has a diagnosis that is serious, there is a temptation to not wait, to want to do something, anything, starting with getting more information. That is human nature and will not change. The internet is the tool that then gives patients hope, albeit sometimes it may turn out to be a false hope.   It is at this point the interaction with a trusted physician partner-in-health can offer priceless “guide rails” to make sure Dr. Google doesn’t get him or herself into serious trouble.

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