Most of us have done it – some more than once. You come down with an illness that perhaps includes a few symptoms you’ve never experienced before and what do you do? You “page Dr. Google” and research your condition online. Depending on the words you search and the preexisting knowledge you may or may not have, such an activity can send you spiraling down a rabbit hole of worry and despair. For most people who don’t have a medical background, what is found online when researching health topics can be disconcerting if not down-right terrifying. What you hope are simply symptoms of a run-of-the-mill cold may be showing up in your Internet search as a rare, all-but-fatal condition or cancer.
While knowledge is a powerful tool and an educated patient is an empowered patient, we specialists see far too many in our daily practice who are riddled with anxiety over the serious medical conditions they think they have developed, all because they let Google play doctor with their minds BEFORE receiving an actual evaluation and diagnosis.
In an effort to help make the Internet a medical research tool that works FOR, not against you and your trusted physician, here are some tips:
Seek Information from REPUTABLE Sources
Chat room and forum-based websites can be useful tools for the patient who has already been diagnosed and is looking for peers to connect with online. But for people who are researching symptoms that haven’t yet been evaluated, these types of sites can be hotbeds of fear and in some cases, quite a bit of misinformation. When you’re researching a condition or symptom, your best bet is to begin with the medical advisory organization for the organ or body part in question. For example, if it’s a symptom that seems to be affecting your heart – start your research with the American Heart Association. If it’s your bladder, the American Urological Association is a smart source. These resources contain a plethora of information that has been written by physician specialists and then vetted and reviewed by their physician peers. In other words, it’s credible medical information that has been scrutinized through rigorous review processes and can generally be trusted.
Engage in Open Dialogue with a Doctor
Even the most credible information found online is useless in the absence of expert physician evaluation and diagnosis. In some cases, the symptoms a patient experiences and researches online may be caused by another condition than the one Google picked. In other cases, the condition suspected by the patient may not be nearly as serious or life-threatening as what the Internet has led them to believe. The bottom line here is that you’ve got to be able to openly discuss your symptoms and concerns with a trusted doctor. Share what you’ve found online. Ask questions. A good doctor will walk you through it all and can often allay fears and anxiety in the process. If you walk out of his or her office feeling more settled than anxious, this is a good thing.
Consult a Second Opinion if Necessary
Now I would be wrong if I said that every physician’s assessment and recommendations are 100% perfect, all of the time. Like you, we are human after all. But if you’ve researched your symptoms online and have shared those findings with a physician specialist only to walk out of his or her office feeling more anxious, or worse, like your concerns weren’t even addressed, then it may be time to look for another doctor. This isn’t necessarily because the doctor is “wrong,” it has more to do with how you FEEL about the interaction. I have plenty of patients who have come to me for a second opinion after feeling “brushed off” by another physician. Though my assessment and treatment recommendations may be similar to that first doctor, the patient feels better about his or her connection with me. That’s a good thing. In fact, research has shown that patients are more likely to follow the course of treatment when it is recommended by a physician they trust. Internet research aside, it’s important to go with your gut on this one.
While there may be some sensational stories of people who researched their symptoms online and ended up “figuring out” that they had a rare disorder, there are countless others who’ve done the same only to fall prey to “snake oil” con artists who have convinced them their “condition” could be cured with some magic treatment. At best those magic treatments did nothing, at worst, they resulted in death. The risk isn’t worth it. Page Dr. Google if you must. But then, please consult a real, live physician expert or two as soon as you can. Your life may depend on it.