Playing Dr. Google: The Perils of Using Google for Health Questions & Symptoms by Dr. Niket Sonpal

Tech
a month ago
Playing Dr. Google: The Perils of Using Google for Health Questions & Symptoms

The search engine Google is one of the most useful information tools to emerge in modern times. “Google” is a recognized verb. Googling “how to cook gluten-free recipes” is harmless and informative. Googling “is my husband having a heart attack" can be deadly. Approximately eight out of 10 Americans search for medical information on the internet. When is it safe to use the internet to learn about health symptoms and treatment and when are you playing with your life? 

1. You Don't Know How Reliable a Site Is

You have to pay attention to things like:

  • How old is the information on that site?
  • Is it backed by real clinical studies from universities or institutions like the Mayo Clinic?
  • Does this site have an agenda?
  • Have they put information up there as “clickbait” to lure you into buying a product they are selling such as a supplement, diet program or book?
  • Are the quotes coming from a physician who is board certified in his or her sub-specialty and can you find this physician online?

2. Googling Symptoms Can Cause Health Anxiety

Google just about any symptom and there’s bound to be results that suggest surgery or connect the symptom with a form of cancer. These extreme conclusions can cause serious anxiety, especially for people who are already afraid of health problems. This anxiety happens so frequently today, there’s a name for it – cyberchondria. According to the British news source DailyMail.com, millions suffer from it. Cyberchondriacs turn to the web for comfort about their health issues instead of a health professional. They can become obsessed and the amount of time they spend checking the web for information can interfere with their daily lives.

3. Stay Away From Health Message Boards

Don’t share your worries on message boards or ask for prescription drug recommendations. I have seen people ask questions such as: Has anyone tried Prozac for depression? They hear one person with a negative experience and then shy away from trying a drug that could potentially help them.

If you go to a random message board with your concerns, people are going to reply with horrific diagnoses, potentially lethal information and their own experiences with prescription drugs that won’t be identical to yours. Physicians don’t moderate these message boards. If dangerous/erroneous advice is given, there is nobody to stop it from being published.

4. You Can Misdiagnose Yourself for Better or Worse 

Perhaps you awake one morning to strange bumps all over your body. You put your symptoms into Google and decide that based on several pages of descriptions, you have prickly heat and you treat it yourself according to what is published on Google. What if the reality is that you have adult chickenpox and you leave it untreated? Conversely, the hypochondriac side can emerge, where you Google symptoms and over-diagnose yourself because you have been having some chest pain that day. You think you are having a heart attack when the reality is, you were simply having upper gas pain.

5. Don’t Use Google in the Midst of a Health Crisis

If your infant suddenly stops breathing now is not the time to Google “how to perform CPR.” This is when you call 911 and get medical help on the ground as soon as possible and take the direction that the operators give you on the line while medical help is on the way. It is a good idea to Google how to perform CPR in a non-crisis situation from a reliable website such as RedCross.org.

6. Google Does Not Know You and Has Never Seen You

When you visit an internist or any other responsible medical doctor, you fill out an extensive form. This form includes, among other things:

  • your age
  • height
  • weight
  • sex
  • gender 
  • race
  • medical history
  • medications you are taking
  • surgeries you have had
  • allergies
  • family health history
  • diseases you currently suffer from
  • mental health history 

A doctor uses all of this to gather information in making his or her diagnosis and make sure they are dispensing medication that doesn't interact with what you are already taking. Google does not know any of this!

When it is OK to use Google as a tool for basic health questions? The simpler the question, the better. If you are absolutely sure of what an ailment/injury is, and you have had it or seen it before, then visiting a reliable site for information can be useful.

Examples of Topics That Are Safe to Google

  • What constitutes high blood pressure? (If you have it seek treatment.)
  • How do you treat a mild sunburn?
  • How do you remove a splinter?
  • What is better to lower a fever, Tylenol or Advil?
  • Should I put hot or cold on my joint if I fall?
  • What should I do if I’m dehydrated?
  • How should I treat a minor cut or abrasion?
  • What food can I eat if I have an upset stomach?
  • Should I starve myself if I have a cold and feed myself If I have a fever?
  • How should I treat a bee sting?
  • How much water should I drink each day?
  • How do I treat a bloody nose?

Some Reliable Sites for Health Information

The information on 30Seconds.com is for informational and entertainment purposes only, and should not be considered medical advice. The information provided through this site should not be used to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease, and is not a substitute for professional care. Always consult your personal healthcare provider.

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Julie Rose
Excellent points, doc, thank you.
Elisa All Schmitz 30Seconds
What an awesome article, Dr. Niket Sonpal ! I had never heard the term "cyberchondria," but yes, I can see that it is definitely a thing. Thank you for listing what are good resources that can be trusted. Everyone needs to read this!

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