Research shows that 1 in 5 searches relate to health, and half of smartphone users say they have used their smartphone to look up health information. This includes searching for a health practitioner or more commonly looking up medical symptoms and illness definitions.
Google has been aware of the problem of self-diagnosis for some time and in June 2016 launched Google symptom cards for quick reference. According to Google the cards use lists of medical symptoms based on a comparison of web results with high quality medical information which has then been reviewed by experts at Harvard Medical School and the Mayo Clinic. The Google symptom cards are now also available to Australians.
With today’s busy lifestyles it can be difficult to organise the time to visit a general practitioner, particularly to check out a minor medical symptom that is not causing a significant issue. Unfortunately self-diagnosis through Googling often leads to self-treating with supplements and vitamins that do little to address the underlying cause and in some cases leading to delayed diagnosis which results in poor health outcomes. Conversely some people Google medical symptoms and determine they have a serious illness which results in unnecessary anxiety or stress, and sometimes demand for expensive tests that generally have a negative result. A better strategy is to write down your symptoms to take to your doctor. If you think it’s nothing serious, you can bring it up at your next health check with your GP.
Reputable websites such as WebMD or the Better Health Channel funded by the Victorian Government are always a more reliable source of information than random web entries. A lot of the information on some commercial ‘clickbait’ websites are simply copied from other sites with no research or references. The best approach is to see a doctor in person who can ask more detailed and relevant questions. A general practitioner who knows your history may be able to link medical symptoms back to a previous or ongoing illness, or a medication change, and ensure you get appropriate care. They will also take into account individual factors such as your age and lifestyle, whereas a lot of information on the internet is generic.
Your family doctor will have a relationship with you that Google can never replace and your GP should always be happy to explain any medical terms or health issues you don’t fully understand. On average general practitioners train for 10 years before they can work unsupervised as a GP, and they have ongoing training as advances are made in healthcare. It’s tempting to think that the internet has the most up to date research and advice but the fact is the advice on some websites is many years old and there is often no easy way to tell when it was posted, consequently the information may be years out of date.