In an ideal world, the internet would be used by patients merely as a starting point, to ascertain whether a symptom may be serious enough to warrant a doctor’s visit.

Unfortunately for the doctor, the patient is likely to come racing to your medical practice with pounding heart, thinking they’re dying because “Google” told them their headaches are a symptom of brain cancer…

Where online resources should stay just that – resources – for the majority of your patients, the information sourced may cause tremendous distress.

And this, in turn, becomes the physician’s problem. Now not only do you need to properly diagnose the symptoms as per usual, but you also need to act as somewhat of a counsellor, because 9 out of 10 times, you will need to reassure them that their pounding headache is not due to brain cancer, and no, they are not going to die within the next 3 weeks.

Although self-diagnosis shouldn’t be your problem, when it affects your patients, it becomes something you’re going to need to deal with. Be prepared next time a patient arrives, white in the face, telling you Google said they’re going to die…

How patients use the internet to self-diagnose

Search engines

There are a plethora of medical sites, wiki pages and blogs where people can find medical information, and according to Women’s Health Magazine, 50% of smartphone users do just that, by conducting their own medical research via search engines.

General internet searches offer no tailored diagnosis at all but spew out information resembling a laundry list of possibilities that range from the conservative to the horrific.

The problem with search engine results is that even the most credible of websites (that are not independent credible medical journals) are pumping out content that is not compiled by the medical fraternity and as such, is often incorrect.

In general, though, most patients are not aware of this and consider the information to be gospel.

Symptom checkers

Symptom checking software is rife online, but in a study published by the British Medical Journal and recounted by Business Insider, researchers assessed 23 global websites that claimed to offer information around diagnosis and triage. Using 45 patient vignettes, of which half were common conditions, their aim was to check the accuracy of the sites.

Screenshot of symptom checking software used on the WebMD site.

And what they found, was that the correct diagnosis came up first only 34% of the time. However, doctors examining the same cases had an accuracy rate of 85 to 90%

The result of symptom checkers is that the patient is often left in a panic because they consider symptom checkers to be a legitimate source of information.

Why patients turn to Dr Google

Turning to Dr Google for information before taking any action is now a worldwide culture, and even South Africans, who tend to be a little slower on the uptake as far as the internet goes, go online to glean knowledge before making any consumer decisions.

If people are considering purchasing a dog kennel, they’ll first find information online, and then search for the best brands, and then the best prices. Finally, only once they consider themselves to be fully educated, will they make the purchase.

Statistics show that most people go online to conduct research before making any purchase – whether they intend buying goods online or offline. They make comparisons and look for product and service reviews to find the best solution.

It makes sense then, that your patients would turn to Dr Google first before making an appointment at your medical practice.

Another reason patients turn to Dr Google is often to save the time of a doctor’s visit, and to save costs.

People who don’t trust the advice of physicians may turn to the internet to find alternative solutions, like natural remedies.

Other possibilities are a lack of trust in their physician, or a lack of relationship, or even a desire for anonymity.

How physicians should respond

Your patients are going to look for information online, whether it’s pre-doctor visit or post.

How medical practices should handle that, is to advise patients on finding reputable sources of information online:

  1. Peer-reviewed scientific journals, like Journal of Food and Nutrition Sciences, Dental Health: Current Research, Journal of Addiction Research and Therapy, and so on. For a full list of topics, visit Peer Reviewed and Open Access Journals.
  2. Educate your patients about the fact that many websites are in business solely to make money from products so their motivations may not be wholesome, and their advice leans towards getting them to click on a link that will make the site profitable.
  3. Tell them that many of the articles are written by people who are not qualified to give medical advice.
  4. Encourage them to contact your medical practice when they want answers.