The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly About Dr. Google

(Hint: It’s not personal.)

There is no question that the internet has been the most important tool to ever empower patients with knowledge and information to make informed choices about their health and healthcare. Some have even given it a nickname of sorts, “Doctor Google.” It’s the first place many of us go when we want to learn about a health issue, and the information that’s now available to us can help us ask better questions, and have a more meaningful conversation with our doctors. Still, as helpful as information can be, sometimes too much of a good thing (or too much of the wrong thing) can lead us down a rabbit hole.


I fell victim to this myself a few weeks ago.


The wonders of electronic health records delivered a recent MRI report to me before I was able to talk to my doctor. Not completely familiar with the anatomy the report was describing I put the significant words (I thought) into my internet search engine and asked Dr. Google. I didn’t look too carefully at the pages that were returned to me; I just clicked on them. And what I found startled me.


The first source described an injury that matched the words on the MRI report but didn’t exactly match my symptoms. Treatment was surgery, one that requires a long recovery. The second page basically said much the same thing. And then my worry machine took over. “I better stop my current exercise program.” “How am I going to work following a surgery like this?” “I’m going to have to cancel my summer vacation.” “Who will take care of me?”


I had a specialist follow-up appointment with a doctor I’d never met scheduled for the next week. And I was totally not thinking clearly. I was consumed with what this information might mean, even as I tried not to worry. And then my rational brain kicked in.


“You need to talk to a patient advocate.”

So I did. I called a patient advocate I know and trust and hired him. He agreed to research the condition as it was described in the MRI report, as well as some causative issues specific to my health and to help me prepare questions for the appointment. When he sent me the list of questions, I had to smile. For the first time, I felt some of the fear subside. These were the questions that would help me truly understand what was going on, what concerns might apply to my specific condition, and how to plan for the future. He suggested I record the appointment or offered to call into to the appointment to take notes for me.


When the doctor sat down with me, though, I learned that while the MRI report was technically correct (yes, there was a tear in the tendon), but it wasn’t the same injury Dr. Google returned to me in my search. What???


I was worrying about the wrong thing??

How could that have happened? The problem is, it does happen… because Dr. Google simply isn’t personal. Was it a wasted effort to consult Dr. Google when I got my MRI report? I don’t think so. It was important for me to have a basic understanding of what the MRI report said, even if it didn’t accurately reflect my specific condition. Was it a wasted effort to freak out? Maybe. You’ve perhaps heard of that old acronym about fear: False Evidence Appearing Real. My MRI report was accurate; it just wasn’t completely accurate for me without the interpretation of my physician. And when it’s personal, clarity be hard to come by.


What I learned is that Dr. Google can be an effective partner, but it’s only one leg of a three legged stool that also includes your physician, and your goals and preferences. In short, as wonderful as it is, the internet requires interpretation.


This doesn’t mean we should ignore what we find on the internet, or alternatively accept it blindly. What we do have to do is not go down the rabbit hole. And the specialist who can help us do that is a professional patient/health advocate. My advocate helped me step back from the search results and my fear, and get clear on what “I” needed to know for my situation. And he helped me return my focus to the physician who is actually taking care of me to help me evaluate if this doctor is the right professional for me to trust.


Was preparing for this first appointment a wasted effort on my part? I don’t think so. I still have those questions in my arsenal, and they helped me feel more of a partner in talking with my doctor. In fact, I realized I got more time with this doctor than I might have otherwise because I was prepared. I’ll see the orthopedist again next week. And I’m scheduled to talk with my patient advocate to prepare for that appointment this week.


*With special thanks to Rick Pugach, President, HealthNavigaid.

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