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Dont Trust Dr Google (Opinion)

Google has grown from a small yet successful search engine in 1998 to the huge multinational it is today. Whatever your feelings on it, you’d have to agree that it has taken the world by storm. And what a world it has become; with words like ‘google’ and ‘googlewhack’ entering the dictionary and the world’s knowledge at your or anyone else’s fingertips. For healthcare professionals, this has meant that we have the ability to rapidly share and investigate different aspects of treatment and disease. It has also meant that before they even step into a clinic, some patients will have read every article on their symptoms which they can get their hands on. From WedMD to Wikipedia, this has its ups and downs.

Google, the Good, the Bad and the Very Bad

As a medical student, this tendency to check symptoms has affected me in three different ways; I can google everything, my family can google everything and my patients can google everything. Personally, I’ve experienced all three and it has caused me to consider the wisdom of having access to all of this unfiltered content and the role of a doctor in the midst of this.

For a medical student, Google is your friend. Sure they’re the clingy friend who writes everything you say down and likes to rifle through your sock drawer, but for the moment they’re still your friend. Whenever I sit down to begin any project, checking Google will be my first port of call, usually followed by Wikipedia. For research, Google Scholar or Google Books are indispensable tools. At this point in time, especially if you are unattached to an academic institution, it would be foolish NOT to check them. For simpler tasks and requests, the bog standard search engine will do.

Although many of my professors and lectures railed against it, I don’t see any problem with beginning any inquiry by whacking it into a search engine. These time-saving pieces of software have effectively become the fonts of human knowledge. As long as the users are aware of their limitations and intend on using them to search elsewhere, it should be an acceptable method of fact finding. Just remember that Google uses algorithms designed to show you what you think you want; if you want counter opinions or unpopular theories then you might want to look elsewhere.

But medical students are the only ones checking stuff online. When my parents or grandparents have a rash, they usually check their symptoms online. If they don’t and call me instead, more often than not it will be what I tell them to do. As a student seeing my own patients in clinic, I have had a couple who have typed their symptoms into the Google search bar. The results haven’t always been good; the host of worried mothers accompanying babies with ‘scarlet fever‘ (all were eczema). The panicking patient who thought she had leukemia (she was fine). I’m sure I’m not alone in encountering these situations which the Google culture has thrust upon us.

Fortunately, someone clever at the NHS has set up a simple and reliable website for anyone who wants to google what is wrong with them. NHS Choices explains things in such a user-friendly manner that I’ve used it for projects and essays in medical school! Hopefully, as this resource becomes more widely used, we’ll have less fearmongered patients in clinics and emergency rooms (WebMD is synonymous with ‘cancer’ after all). Next time you have a funny rash or the doctor doesn’t explain your diagnosis, I’d recommend NHS Choices.

How Doctors sort the good from the bad

There seems to be a love-hate relationship with Google both in academic and clinical medicine. Some of this can be chalked up to inflexibility in the face of new technology, some to poor use of the software. As we move further away from paternalism in medicine, we should accept that our patients will have freer access to information concerning their illness. They’re entitled to it. The problem lies here: in higher education, e aren’t just taught what to think, we’re taught how to think too. We know how to filter our content, separating the wheat from the chaff. Patients won’t necessarily do this and risk taking all information at face value. From this, our responsibility is twofold; we must ensure that accurate information is widely disseminated. Both our news and our medical content should be accessible to anyone who needs it. The flipside to this is that we should call out garbage reporting and bad science where we see it. If certain unnamed newspapers raise a state of panic and sell copies because “X and Y increases the risk of cancer” (note the use of ‘risk’, it is illegal to falsely claim that it causes or cures cancer) then it is our duty to tell it like it really is.

Image sourced from pixabay.com

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  1. Are medication side effects all in the mind?

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