Dr. Google will see you now

Imagine you’ve been experiencing some physical symptoms that don’t seem normal to you. At first you ignored them, but when they didn’t go away, you logged on to your favorite browser and plugged in a few terms. A long list of pages comes up, and you start clicking away to try to figure out what might be going on.


Now imagine you learn enough that you realize you should see a doctor. When the doctor comes into the exam room, she asks that standard “What brings you here today?” You start describing what you’re experiencing, and then say something like “…and the internet says this might be ——- (fill in the blank.) It’s hard not to notice the doctor’s eye roll. Some even refer to our internet-based self-diagnosis as “cyberchondria.”


The internet has brought information to us in ways we could never have imagined and at one level prepares us to be better patients than ever. But what about that doctor’s eye roll? And what happens if you read something you don’t fully understand?


A recent study (done before the pandemic) of 5000 individuals wanted to know if consulting the internet helped or hindered the diagnosis that was made, as well as whether it increased or decreased patient anxiety. Curious what they found?


It’s no secret that some doctors find the use of the internet among their patients a challenge. They worry about *what* sources patients are reading, the accuracy of the information they’ve gotten, and managing the anxiety that health information that isn’t presented in the context of the patient’s individual situation might cause.


Hence the eye roll when we mention what that we’ve done our own research. Understandably a doctor’s first thought might be “Now I’m going to have to explain why what Dr. Google said doesn’t apply to them.” But is that what really happens? In fact, the authors wrote of their results “although the perceived harm of an internet search for health information (seems) unfounded, the potential benefits are currently minimal.”


So apparently consulting Dr. Google doesn’t hurt, but it doesn’t help much, either?


One way to interpret these findings is that the authors found is that several search engines now have built in health information that is curated by major medical centers, and in this study, more than half of the study patients found this kind of information to be helpful. Only a small percentage of study participants used social media or forums, which may have less accurate information. There was no evidence in the in the study that performing an internet search led patients to a more aggressive type of intervention or increased anxiety over what they read.


However, an alternative way to see these results is to note that the benefit of searching the internet for diagnostic information was small. The authors noted this could be related to a concept called “anchoring.” This is where we believe we know what’s wrong, and look for information to justify our belief rather than being open to all recommendations.


So where does this leave us as patients?


Doctors, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants train for years to assess and diagnose our symptoms. I suspect that what causes the eye roll when we announce that we’ve been to the internet has more to do with the fact that while being an informed patient is a good thing, we aren’t doctors and don’t even play one on TV ;). So it may be in the way we share our research.


The internet plays a vital role in our empowerment as patients. Here are some things to consider before sharing your Dr. Google results with your licensed physician:


  • Prepare for your visit. Take the time to write down when and where your symptoms began, what makes them better or worse, and any other information that feels related. Prepare a list of your potential questions, as well as a list of what you think might be wrong, based on what you. But don’t share them just yet! 
  • First, let your doctor ask her/his questions and share his/her thoughts. If what your doctor shares is in alignment with what you learned from Dr. Google, now’s the time to pull out your list of questions, see what hasn’t been answered and fire away.
  • After your questions are answered, consider sharing with your doctor that you wanted to prepare for your visit and had also looked up your symptoms on the internet. Sharing the source that you found with your doctor and asking how they feel about it will help your doctor acknowledge that the source you found is reputable, or maybe even offer other sources you can search the next time you’re curious.


But what if what your doctor thinks isn’t in alignment with what you read? You have a couple of options.


  • Consulting with a patient advocate before you meet with your doctor can be a helpful way to prepare for this scenario. Much of how you respond when your doctor’s assessment doesn’t align with your research is dependent on the length of time you’ve been a patient in their practice, how you felt about the interaction, and how serious your condition might be. A difference of opinion doesn’t have to mean the end of the relationship.
  • It is always OK to ask your doctor if something else you read about could be the problem. We need to be cautious about our own “anchoring” on what we think is wrong, but if you have trust in your physician, being open to their explaining why they don’t think your Dr. Google diagnosis is correct is part of being a partner in your care.
  • And if you’re still not comfortable, a second opinion is always an option, whether regarding a diagnosis or treatment.
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