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Doctor Typing

Should we be using ‘Dr. Google’?

Doctor Typing

Should we be using ‘Dr. Google’?

With the winter in the UK being long and various stories coming out about the NHS just not being ready for it, many people who are a bit under the weather might question whether they should be turning elsewhere for advice, but is it a good idea to search for your ailments online?

A 2015 study found that more than one in five (21.8%) of us self-diagnose with the help of search engines rather than visit a GP. Overall, it also found that we’re more likely to Google our symptoms than book an appointment, and that Liverpool was the UK city most prone to turning to ‘Dr. Google’.

The findings reflect the on-demand nature we have come to expect with the internet, with patients simply no longer patient. Rather than wait for a doctor’s surgery to be open, their curiosity gets the better of them and they want to find out there and then what their condition is, and what they should do about it.

What do medics think of this?

Medical professionals’ advice on using online resources tends to be very mixed. An i News article last October reported that many patients claimed to have been mocked when they talked to their GPs about their online findings, and that medics had been hosting informative sessions on the theme of ‘cyberchondria’ – believing oneself to be ill based on internet misinformation.

By the end of the year though, the Royal College of GPs (RCGP) appeared to be giving its backing to online diagnoses with its “three before GP” advice. It advocated three steps people could consider before they make an appointment: applying self-care, consulting a pharmacist and seeking help online.

However, the term used by the RCGP was an important one – it should be a “reputable online source”. The organisation recommends NHS Choices, which offers advice and treatments for a range of conditions. There’s also Push Doctor, which allows people to get in touch with an NHS-trained practitioner in minutes.

Perhaps the main problem is that people tend to visit forums and read anecdotal information. If you Google a symptom, you will probably see that somebody has previously asked some kind of forum about a similar symptom themselves. You’ll no doubt find that the advice given ranges from “ignore it, I had that once and it went away in a week” to “see a GP right now or you could be dead in three months!” Plus, it doesn’t help that Google so readily brings up images, no doubt showing some very graphic and extreme forms of your particular illness. It’s not surprising that people can end up even more confused and anxious after a spell online.

The NHS has a ‘Be Clear on Cancer’ campaign that urges people to speak to their doctor if they find themselves getting out of breath more easily, suffering from a persistent cough or noticing blood when they go to the toilet. In most cases, these symptoms will not be anything serious, but by Googling around, people suffering from them are sure to hear horror stories. This highlights the importance of seeking professional advice so that at least the worst case scenarios can be either ruled out or dealt with before they become more serious.

John Murray

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