Dr Google can be dangerous

Dr M K Mam
Internet is an a great source of information about anything to everything including that of medical- health related information. Wonderful thing about it is that all the information is easily available just at a finger touch that too at any time and at any place in the comfort and privacy.
Whenever we have a query, most of us just go to ‘Google’ and try to find the answer. Many of us especially youngsters google the symptoms and get the health related information and then make a doctor’s appointment. Studies reported 67.5 to 81 % of American adults look for online medical information. Women search the net for health related information more often than men. There are websites and apps that help patients with self-diagnosis. Net educates, empowers a person by providing the health related information , health services etc. It has been reported that in addition to providing information, it also reduces feeing of loneliness and isolation especially in patients who are immobile and homebound because of a debilitating disease. It has been found that net rather than the doctor is the first source of medical information for many people.
A study showed that half of people in Britain turn to the so called ‘Dr Google’ before visiting a general practitioner (GP), despite online diagnosis being proven as less accurate than a doctor’s. Another study reported that more than half of respondents had more confidence in their GP after searching online , it leads to better mutual understanding of symptoms and diagnosis. The search usually does not lead patient to distrust their GP. It is useful in directing users to get a professional opinion. It does help in looking for a good doctor that too in a person’s vicinity.
It is good to have information, however it may not be right for diagnosing and treating one’s medical problem. A study from India reported that Google’ search was useful and reliable source of information for patients with regard to the disease aetiopathogenesis and the problems caused by the diseases , however the internet based information was incomplete and not reliable with regard to treatment of the diseases. It is a fact that there is lot of health related information online, however it is difficult to decipher the good from bad as there are many websites that are not trustworthy. All the information provided by internet may not be true or trust worthy as anyone and everyone with what so ever credentials can post on the net. Multiple studies have reported that patient- oriented medical information on the internet is scientifically inaccurate, incomplete and biased. Studies also show that online diagnosis is bad, in one way or another. Self-diagnosing health symptoms via online symptom checkers or ‘Dr Google’ is wrong nearly three-quarters of the time has been shown in a study from Australia. After googling, one can misinterpret the information resulting in misdiagnosis. One can overestimate the symptoms and land up in taking wrong medicines- wrong self-treatment. The worst thing is that self-treatment can result in serious problems because of side effects, overdose, dangerous drug interactions etc. Again, online misinformation and the worry of a particular diagnosis can lead to having unnecessary tests, resulting in waste of time and money. Googling the symptoms, one can connect the symptoms to worst possible conditions like cancer etc. and that can result in serious anxiety etc. One can also underestimate the symptoms and thereby land up in problems with the worsening of the problem. There are reports to show that Googling and using medical app can also result in unnecessary “health anxiety” – comparable emotional and behavioural effects. An experimental study published in Clinical Psychology Science (2020) showed that health related internet use for symptoms led to a stronger negative effect, increased health anxiety and increased need to consult a physician compared with the control condition.
When we consult a doctor, the doctor listens actively- takes a detailed history and then does a meticulous clinical examination that includes a compassionate touch. The doctor looks at the picture in all aspects, assesses the patient in toto and tries to go into the depth of the problem whereas ‘Dr Google’ does not know the details of patient’s medical history and over and above it has no idea about the clinical examination which can be nicely done and interpreted by a doctor. The doctor explains , advises appropriate diagnostic investigations that help in making the appropriate diagnosis and thereafter the appropriate treatment. Doctor in person interacts with the patient, the family and clears the doubts if any, answers the questions- all ifs and buts about the problem and its management. Communication between doctor and a patient, and a good clinical examination as a matter of fact are very important components of patient care. As such doctor understands the symptoms better , can explain the patient better. The doctor can very well understand not only the body but also the mind of the patient. on the contrary, net gives a general view of the problem and not the specific to the symptoms of the person. It can provide the most common causes related to the condition and suggested treatment options. As a matter of fact every patient is unique, metabolism and body functions vary from person to person, accordingly symptoms can vary from one person to another, so what works for one person may not work for another.
Doctors as such are well trained for years , have the knowledge and experience to deal with the problem, to give an expert advice. Research has shown that doctor’s diagnosis is far superior to that of an online symptom checker. Again a study on comparison of physician and computer diagnostic accuracy showed that physicians vastly outperformed computer algorithms in diagnostic accuracy.
Summarising, getting medical information about a problem from the net is fine, however we should consult a doctor for the problem. It is always good to consult and trust a doctor, net should never be seen as a doctor. Seeing it as a doctor for self-diagnosis and self-treatment can be very hazardous.
(The author is Formerly, Vice Principal, Prof and Head Orthopaedics, Christian Medical College, Ludhiana, Punjab)