Why Dr. Google is Not Your Friend

woman using phone and laptop to search medical terms

Using the internet for medical research may not be in your best interests.

What do you do when you notice you’re feeling weak and tired and slightly short of breath?

If you’re like many other seniors, you might to turn to the internet. A 2015 study found that the most preferred source of health information was the internet, at nearly 45 percent. This is in contrast to health professionals, with just 17.1 percent of respondents preferring them for health information.

Now, just about four years after this study was published, those numbers are probably much higher. More and more seniors are using the internet, which means more and more seniors are getting their health information online.

But is this a good thing?

There are two primary ways people use the internet for health research. The first is to check and self-diagnose symptoms as they occur, and the second is to read up on a condition after a diagnosis.

Using the internet for both these reasons have some benefits and risks, and we’ll discuss them both in this article.

The Internet as a Symptom Checker

Nowadays there are apps to answer a list of questions regarding your symptoms, or you can put a few symptoms into a Google search. While it sounds simple—and it is—it can also be dangerous.

This is for two a few reasons.

First of all, the results you get are highly likely to be inaccurate. A 2016 study found that doctors vastly outperformed computer algorithms in diagnostic accuracy.

Secondly, there is a high risk of misuse for these symptom checkers. Some apps will tell you how well your symptoms match specific illnesses, while others will tell you your likelihood of having a list of diseases. Users who misunderstand the app may assume they have or don’t have a specific disease, and attempt to self-treat their supposed condition. This can be extremely dangerous.

Another risk of symptom checkers is that it sometimes tells you the worst case scenario, leading people to suffer unnecessary anxiety until they get their true—and usually much more innocuous—diagnosis.

The bottom line is, always schedule an appointment to see your doctor to check out new or unusual symptoms. In the meantime, you might want to use a symptom checker to get an idea of what you might be facing, but rely on your doctor, not Dr. Google, for treatment.

The Internet as Health Information

In the past, if you received a diagnosis and wanted to learn more about the condition, your doctor would give you an informational pamphlet or two to read. To learn more, you’d go to the library to find some more material.

Nowadays, you go online.

Where you go is most important. The internet is a public place, and anybody can publish whatever they want. In fact, studies show only 1 in 5 internet statements is correct.

I just made up that statistic, to demonstrate how easy it is to falsify information online. This has given rise to the concept of “fake news” that dominated the last presidential election, but when fake news becomes fake health news, we’re really in trouble.

There’s nothing wrong with searching for information about your condition online. An educated consumer is still best, and being up to date and knowledgeable about your chronic health condition is a great way to stay involved in your healthcare. But make sure to stick with reputable websites, such as webMD or Mayo Clinic. The National Institutes of Health website is also a great resource for health information.

Watch where you search for medical news. The internet is full of modern-day snake oil salesmen touting their miracle cures for heart disease or cancer. Using pseudo-science and fancy-sounding medical terms, these people claim everything your doctor has told you is wrong. Only they know the true science behind your illness, and using their “natural” remedies will cure anything from lung cancer to diabetes.

While natural and alternative remedies do have a place in alleviating symptoms and improving outcomes, avoid reading medical information from people who claim their products will completely cure your condition. They usually present their medical views and opinions as scientific fact, which can confuse you and may cause you to make harmful decisions.

As long as you follow reputable websites that accurately source all their facts, the internet is an excellent place to research your chronic condition or disease.

Here on the Bridgeway blog, we also try to cover health topics that are important to our residents. If you’d like to see a particular topic covered, drop us a line in the comments or on our facebook page.