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I recently had a patient who came in convinced she had a brain tumor. As she told it, it started with fatigue.
She first assumed it was because she had two young children and a full-time job and never got enough sleep. Or maybe it was because she was just staying up late at night to scan through social media.
One night, feeling particularly drained as she sat slumped on the couch, she decided to Google her symptom to see if she could find an at-home remedy. One website led to another, and before she knew it, she was on a website dedicated to brain tumors, convinced that her fatigue was due to a silent mass. She was suddenly very alert.
And very anxious.
“I didn’t sleep at all that night,” she explained.
She called our office the next morning and scheduled a visit but wasn’t able to get in for another week. During this time, I’d later learn, she didn’t eat or sleep well all week and felt anxious and distracted. She also continued to scan Google search results for brain tumors and even became concerned that she was showing other symptoms, too.
At her appointment, she told us of all the symptoms she thought she might have. She provided a list of all the scans and blood tests she wanted. Though her doctor had reservations over this, the tests the patient wanted were eventually ordered.
Needless to say, many expensive scans later, her results showed that she didn’t have a brain tumor. Instead, the patient’s blood work, which most likely would’ve been ordered anyway given her complaint of chronic fatigue, showed that she was slightly anemic.
We told her to increase her iron intake, which she did. She began feeling less tired soon after.
Google contains a vast quantity of information but lacks discernment
This isn’t an uncommon scenario: We feel our various aches and pains and turn to Google — or “Dr. Google” as some of us in the medical community refer to it — to see what’s wrong with us.
Even as a registered nurse who’s studying to be a nurse practitioner, I’ve turned to Google with the same disjointed questions about random symptoms, like “pain stomach dying?”
The problem is, while Google certainly has a vast quantity of information, it lacks discernment. By this I mean, while it’s pretty easy to find lists that sound like our symptoms, we don’t have the medical training to understand the other factors that go into making a medical diagnosis, like personal and family history. And neither does Dr. Google.
This is such a common issue that there’s a running joke between healthcare professionals that if you Google a symptom (any symptom), you’ll inevitably be told you have cancer.
And this rabbit hole into fast, frequent, and (usually) false diagnoses can lead to more Googling. And a lot of anxiety. In fact, this has become such a common occurrence that psychologists have coined a term for it: cyberchondria, or when your anxiety increases due to health-related searches.
So, while the possibility for experiencing this increased anxiety related to internet searches for medical diagnoses and information may not be necessary, it sure is common.
There’s also the issue around the reliability of sites that promise an easy — and free — diagnosis from the comfort of your own couch. And while some websites are correct more than 50 percent of the time, others are greatly lacking.
Yet despite the chances of unnecessary stress and finding incorrect, or even potentially harmful, information, Americans frequently use the internet to find medical diagnoses. According to a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center, 72 percent of American adult internet users said they looked online for health information in the previous year. Meanwhile, 35 percent of American adults admit to going online for the sole purpose of finding a medical diagnosis for themselves or a loved one.
Using Google to search out health topics isn’t always a bad thing
This, however, isn’t to say all Googling is bad. The same Pew survey also found that people who educated themselves on health topics using the internet were more likely to get better treatment.
There are also times when using Google as a starting point can help get you to the hospital when you need it most, as another one of my patients found out.
One night a patient was binge-watching his favorite TV show when he got a sharp pain in his side. At first, he thought it was something he ate, but when it didn’t go away, he Googled his symptoms.
One website mentioned appendicitis as a possible cause for his pain. A few more clicks and this patient was able to find an easy, at-home test that he could perform on himself to see if he may need medical care: Push down on your lower abdomen and see if it hurts when you let go.
Sure enough, his pain shot through the roof when he pulled his hand away. So, the patient called our office, was triaged over the phone, and we sent him to the ER, where he had emergency surgery to remove his appendix.
Look to Google as your starting point, not your final answer
Ultimately, knowing that Google may not be the most reliable source to wade through for checking symptoms isn’t going to stop anyone from doing that. If you have something that you’re concerned enough about to Google, it’s probably something your doctor wants to know about, too.
Don’t delay actual care from medical professionals who have years of intense training for the comfort of Google. Sure, we’re living in a technological age, and a lot of us are far more comfortable telling Google about our symptoms than a real human. But Google isn’t going to look at your rash or care enough to work harder when you’re having a hard time finding answers.
So, go ahead, Google it. But then write down your questions, call your doctor, and talk to someone who knows how to tie all the pieces together.