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Release Date: 6/26/2014

Going to Google more than your doctor

Dr. Anita Schnapp

Dr. Anita Schnapp

by Dr. Anita Schnapp

The other day, I felt tired and a little light-headed. So, just for the sake of this article, I Googled “symptoms light-headed and lethargic“. The first link I saw, which had the term MD in its title, suggested diagnoses ranging from alcohol poisoning to a stroke to a stab wound. Truth be told, I had spent several hours delivering babies and hadn’t eaten in a while. No wonder I was tired and a little dizzy!

That’s the danger of turning to Dr. Google with symptoms. A zit can become a tumor. An age spot can become cancer. Dehydration can become a death sentence.

Last year, around 35 percent of Americans went online to diagnose themselves or others. The survey from The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project also showed that while 41 percent of survey respondents said they followed up with a medical professional, more than one in three never did.

That concerns me. The Internet has so much medical information available at the click of a mouse, but so much of it is inaccurate. Anyone can write anything and post it on the web. There’s no review, no quality control, no fact checking. Websites with “MD” and “doctor” in the link may not be written by a doctor at all.

In addition, wandering the web is causing a new diagnosis called “cyberchondria”, a sort of Internet-induced hypochondria. Patients who start looking for their symptoms online let their curiosity take over, and start looking at other, perhaps unrelated symptoms. What started out as a search for “sniffles” sometimes turns into an anxiety-laden reading about pneumonia-related deaths.

Even the reputable websites, produced by medical institutions like the Mayo Clinic, lack the one thing your doctor has: context. Your doctor can examine you and ask you questions, like “When did the symptoms start?” “Do you have a family history?” “Point to where the pain is at its worst?” What does it feel like when I move it like this?” Based on your responses, a medical professional can determine what the symptoms mean, and prioritize them. A website can’t do that.

Once you receive a diagnosis, websites and support groups can then serve as a stepping off point for conversations between you and your doctor. Often, the information you find can help you form questions about the next steps in treatment.

For me, the treatment for my symptoms included a sandwich and a nap, far less serious than what the Internet was suggesting, and just what the doctor ordered.

Dr. Anita Schnapp is a St. Anthony’s obstetrician/gynecologist.

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