Here are ten ways that Internet diagnosing interferes with your health care.
1. Dr. Google doesn’t know you. Can’t see you, can’t hear your story, can’t smell you, and can’t touch you. It doesn’t have intuition or gut feelings about you.
2. The Internet breeds cyberchondria in some and false reassurance in others. The more complex the problem, the more likely your self-diagnosis is wrong. Internet research can quickly overwhelm you, causing cyberchondria; when a person becomes overly anxious and convinces themselves that they have an illness when in fact they don’t. You may think you have ovarian cancer but with expert consultation you are found to have an irritable bowel. Unfortunately, the opposite may be true, and you could use the Internet to convince yourself that there is nothing wrong when you actually do have cancer.
3. Dr. Google is wrong 59 percent of the time. According to the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, 35 percent of respondents had researched a medical condition in 2012 and of that group only 41 percent of patients who diagnosed themselves online said a medical provider confirmed their suspicions. An additional 2 percent said that a medical provider partially confirmed their suspicions. Those aren’t great odds if you’re betting on your health.
4. The Internet can increase the risk of confirmation bias. This bias occurs when a patient comes in looking for evidence to support a pre-conceived opinion, rather than actually listening for information that might prove her wrong. “I know that I have an ovarian cyst, so there is no reason for my doctor to ask me if there’s blood in my stool. She’s not listening to me, I know that I have an ovarian cyst.” What you can’t know is that my intuition and experience is telling me that your symptoms are suspicious for colon cancer. Unfortunately, you stopped listening because Dr. Google says you have a cyst, and you are looking for confirmation.
5. The Internet can’t listen, so keep the lines of communication between you and your doctor open. When patients come pre-armed with their diagnosis and treatment plan, they run the risk that their physician will stop listening for the important diagnostic details. If I’m busy and you aren’t listening to my advice, I may not have time to argue with you. You’ll likely leave with the wrong diagnosis and the wrong treatment. I don’t want to misdiagnose you but depending on how demanding you are, I might not have the fight left in me to dissuade you. In my defense, I will never agree with you if the decision is critical and I will tell you kindly that you are wrong, if you’re still listening to me. There’s a lot of conditions that will get better regardless of what treatment we choose, but my treatment will probably work faster than your Internet solution.
6. The Internet can solidify an anchoring bias. An anchoring bias happens when a physician settles on a diagnosis too early and then disregards other important clues that don’t fit that diagnosis. The patient can also have an anchoring bias when they know what’s wrong with them, so they leave out important details and dispute any information from the physician that doesn’t fit their diagnosis. The lines of communication stop and the wrong diagnosis may become anchored in place.
7. In the exam room, your story matters more than your research. Give us the details. If your physician doesn’t appear to be listening then slow her down. “Doctor, can I tell you all the details, I’m not sure which ones are most important but you might hear the clue that matters most from my story.” I’m a physician, and I do this with my personal physicians. Think about your story before you get there and don’t give me your diagnosis but do share your story: when, where, what makes it better or worse, what have you tried, and finally what you think is wrong. Your opinion does matter but don’t lead with the Google diagnosis.
8. Don’t let Dr. Google get between you and your physician. If you have already decided on your treatment and your physician disagrees with you, then you may set up an adversarial relationship. How would you react if you were an expert in your field and your client started the conversation with, “I know everything about my problem and so and so says that all of you people want me to do blank, and I’m not going to do it that way”? I don’t know about you, but the response in my head sounds like, “Why exactly are you here if you don’t trust my training, expertise, and judgment? We are wasting each other’s time.” It really doesn’t matter whether you are a uber seamstress, rocket scientist, attorney, or teacher. You know your stuff and appreciate others respecting your expertise. If Dr. Google could cure you, then I’m guessing you wouldn’t be in my office.
9. You are two clicks away from garbage medical advice and junk science. Who is behind the “expert” Internet advice? Being a celebrity does not make you a medical expert. Would you take acting lessons from me? No, then why would you take medical advice from McCarthy or Sommers? I know that you won’t stop Googling but find a reputable medical site that is supported by academic centers or major medical organizations. It’s important that the content isn’t driven by advertising bias or personal agendas.
National Institutes of Health, American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and PubMed are a few to try or ask your doctor where to look. If you leave a reputable site by clicking away, then you may completely lose an experts voice and replace it with anecdotal stories or worse, dangerous advice. I want you to educate yourself, and the Internet has a wealth of good information but be cautious. You may have lots of questions after the visit that I didn’t discuss, or you didn’t hear and a reputable site can educate you further. Bring your questions to our next visit.
10. Dr. Google doesn’t really care about your health. Does that shock you? It shouldn’t. The Internet will never replace human interaction. It can’t show you compassion, empathize with you, give you a shoulder to lean on, hold your hand, rejoice with you or grieve with you.
Dr. Google will never know you or care as much as I do.
Tracey Delaplain is an obstetrician-gynecologist who blogs at What’s for dinner, Doc?
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