Welcome to the rabbit hole of online health (dis)information.
You notice a symptom and you immediately “Google it”. The internet starts throwing plausible afflictions your way trying to do what it does best.
Soon enough, and a few super SEO-ed pages down – you’re almost sure that you have an incredibly terrible condition and you’re petrified. Which in turn causes more stress, and exacerbates your initial uneasiness.
The charade continues till about the time you actively try to get real-world medical advice, and your doctor puts your concerns to rest with her trademark nonchalance and suggests that it’s much less serious than you thought.
If all of this feels familiar- you’re not alone.
Why do people turn to Dr. Google so often?
Seema* is a 58 year old who considers herself pretty tech savvy – she religiously follows Youtube for exciting new recipes and keeps in touch with her children through video calls and Whatsapp.
And true to form, whenever she feels like she or a loved one might be sick, she turns to her trusted companion in all things internet, Google. But with all the conflicting information out there, Seema realizes that her symptoms of wrist pain and pins-and-needles could be as simple as carpal tunnel syndrome or as bad as arthritis or even nerve damage.
Seema is not alone in this habit.
Studies suggest that most patients turn to the internet, even when they are planning to visit a doctor. Things are so bad that some doctors and researchers even have a name for this syndrome – cyberchondria.
With the large amount of data that is available at our predisposal, of course it’s tempting to take a quick look, just to know what questions to ask the doctor.
But is this habit of googling really helping anyone?
Or are we going down the path to a hypochondriac’s worst nightmare?
Even though Seema puts a lot of faith in the abilities of her doctors, she continues to google her symptoms. From wanting to clear her small (and seemingly silly) doubts to wanting to cover all her bases, Googling for healthcare is almost an automatic response for her now.
A lot of doctors take issue with this approach since it makes a patient question expert diagnoses which in turn can negatively affect the doctor-patient relationship.
The sheer amount of conflicting information and marketing content is also causing increased paranoia and mental health concerns in patients, especially those living with chronic ailments. Because at the end of the day, Google can only show them potential diagnoses and can’t give them a personalized treatment that takes their age, lifestyle, medical history and such into account, like a doctor can.
It’s healthy to be skeptical of online ‘research’.
When was the last time you searched past the first two pages of your Google results?
Chances are, never. Or, maybe it’s been a while. That’s because Google has become ridiculously good at anticipating and personalizing your results over time.
While these results may be arranged by relevance, they may also be listed thanks to good old search engine optimization (SEO). This is a great thing for the brands looking to connect to their audience, but in many cases, it doesn’t serve the deeper purpose that users are looking for. Content written for the purpose of selling a product or service may not be inaccurate, but its primary driver is definitely not the wellbeing of a patient.
According to a 2017 review paper, researchers found that doing pre-appointment research positively impacted their doctor consultation. The patients could better understand clinical jargon and they could have more productive conversations with their doctors about their health. But this is only applicable to cases where patients discussed their online findings with their doctors during their appointments. Not wanting to belittle their doctor’s knowledge, a lot of patients tend to keep their worries to themselves and choose to agonize alone.
An Australian study on the quality of diagnostic advice in free websites showed that the results were relevant only 36% of the time. Most results recommended “more urgent care than appropriate”.
A lot of people like Seema tend to take online information at face value. This can have a negative impact on their mental and physical health at times.
It’s important to understand that only by scouring through millions of search results to find relevant information, will patients be able to have their desired consulting experience.
There’s a better way to use digital healthcare.
The internet is an indispensable part of our lives and it’s almost impossible to expect that patients will not continue to seek out information online. But when taken simply as a starting point, online health information can positively drive people to seek out a doctor’s advice.
A great way to unlock the potential of digital healthcare is to combine online health data with newer and more advanced options like telemedicine, where the internet has broken the barriers of access that previously existed between doctors and patients.
Instant access to quality healthcare and doctor-driven diagnoses automatically makes misinformation or partially curated health data irrelevant, and improves the chances of health outcomes significantly for patients across the spectrum.
A study on this trend reported that almost 45% of patients surveyed had self-diagnosed on the internet before visiting the clinic; 72.5% of these patients discussed their findings with their doctors, and 71.7% of this subset believed that the engagement positively affected their relationship with their physician.
Telemedicine takes the doctor-patient relationship beyond an examination room and positively impacts mutual respect and trust – key drivers that are essential to long term treatment.
This allows patients to not only have access to tools that help them understand their own bodies and health conditions better, it puts them in the driver’s seat and empowers them to take charge of their own care.
Phable is an innovative lifestyle disease management app simplifying life for patients & doctors through video consultations and remote healthcare.