Updated 26 March 2015

Google says you might die soon...from a sore throat

While the value of being able to find out more about your health is one of the great gifts of the digital age, there is such a confusing abundance of information out there that we run the risk of becoming e-hypochondriacs. Dr Owen Wiese weighs in.

Unless your computer has hands and a stethoscope, it is unlikely it will ever be able to 100% correctly diagnose your condition. Or can it?

Why would anyone pay doctors' consultation fees these days? Are you frustrated that your doctor hardly ever tells  you straight: “you have pneumonia”, but rather says: “you might have a lower respiratory tract infection, but we need to investigate further to exclude...”  

A lot has been written on Google being a notorious diagnostician, but the question still remains: how good is it really? There are a number of symptom checkers on the web that attempts to explain your symptoms based on algorithms matching a set of symptoms for a specific condition.

Any medical doctor will tell you that, in order to make a diagnosis, one need to have a clear overview of the patient’s symptoms, previous medical history and a complete physical examination.

If you believe everything you read online, you might be dying in the next half an hour or so. For something as simple as a sore throat Dr Google might tell you you have inoperable larynx cancer. While this might just be the case, a case of pharyngitis can easily turn into a very expensive trip to your real doctor.

My point in case:

When patients used to come to my surgery with printed lists of possible causes for their symptoms, it always made me anxious.  Not because I doubted in myself, but more because I have to explain to a patient, who is already convinced he has Chediak-Higashi Syndrome,  that the cause of his fever is most likely a streptococcus throat infection. 

I often found that patients prepare themselves for the worst possible explanation of their symptoms when as a matter of fact, most of the time, the symptoms themselves are so vague that it might literally mean anything. 

However, turning to the Internet isn't always such a bad idea. Patients might pick up something that would otherwise not bother them. I once had an elderly woman presenting with what appeared to be a mole on her eyelid.  Concerned that it was growing bigger, she asked her granddaughter to go on the “interweb” to see if it can be removed. 

Her granddaughter noted that a “mole” changing appearance and size is a matter for concern. She insisted her grandmother should have it checked out. It turned out that the “mole” was in fact a basal cell carcinoma.

What is troubling is the fact that patients often don’t realise that Google - or a health website's search engine - is obviously not human and certainly not trained to diagnose (or programmed to do so for that matter).

I once had a patient that was so upset with me, that she left the surgery requesting to see another doctor. The reason?  I refused to look at her research.  

I tried explaining to her that I prefer not to look at researched material before taking my own history and examining her myself. It is human nature to be easily influenced by whatever is presented to you. 

For example, if a patient complains of a tummy bug and shows me printouts on gastric carcinoma, how can I ignore it? Even if you are the most experienced doctor, I bet your judgement will be clouded by a stack of printouts pointing to the rarest and worst diseases known to mankind.

The question still remains: can we trust Google at all?  Unless you have a version of Google enabled with virtual reality technology that can examine you, I don’t think you should allow it to diagnose you.  Use the information to guide you.

Here’s a little secret:

Doctors often use Google to help figure out what's wrong with their patients. I often used Mr Know-it-all to help me unravel a mystery case

The difference between doctors and patients using Google is that doctors have the medical background to sieve through obvious nonsense, while the general population will be confused by terms such as ileum (referring to a part of the small intestine) and ilium (one of the pelvic bones).

Is it a spelling mistake? Saying that your ileum might have a crack in, will send your doctor in a frenzy. The untrained eye can easily miss this. 

I have also used Google to help me make a diagnosis. And once or twice it actually helped me save a life. But I will never rely on it to make a diagnosis for me.

In essence this is what patients often do. They expect Google to diagnose and then also suggest treatment. (And before you know it you receive weekly emails on penis enlargement pills from a very odd company).

To use Google to aid in your wellbeing I suggest the following:

1.       Never substitute your own GP with an online tool

2.       Use reputable websites like Health24 for information. Look for the sign that confirms the site complies with the HONcode standard for trustworthy health information:

3.       Always see how easy it is to get hold of the author of the information – the more difficult the more likely it is the information is not accurate (not a golden rule, but I find it works!)

4.       Read multiple reputable sources instead of only one

5.       Only if two million sources tell you that your symptoms are DEFINITELY due to a certain condition should you believe it. (In essence: never rely on a diagnosis made by someone other than a clinician that examined you)

6.       Try not to order medication from online pharmacies that has questionable credentials.

7.       You cannot buy prescription drugs legally without a doctor’s prescription – no matter what anyone tells you.

 Read more by Dr Owen Wiese:

TB - the side only doctors see

When a doctor loses a patient

Penile transplant: Three key takeout points

What's your diagnosis? 


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