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Is Dr Google a 21st-century necessity?

On 27th September 2018, Google turned 20 years old. Throughout the last two decades, internet users have increasingly turned to Dr Google as a popular search engine to help self-diagnose health concerns. A study in late 2017 showed that in Britain alone, 75% of the population have treated an ailment or illness after Googling their symptoms. The benefits are clear: it is easier than going to a GP; it’s infinitely more private and finding the cause and treatment of that embarrassing lump or bump is only a few clicks away.

However, the pitfalls of online self-diagnosis have been well-documented with many health experts warning that the internet can often mislead, give incorrect advice from unreliable sources and also cause needless worry. In fact, Google’s algorithms for search optimisation often mean that the ‘worst-case’ medical conditions are highlighted more frequently (and appear higher in search rankings) compared to the less concerning health conditions.

Despite these obvious concerns, we continue to embrace the art of online self-diagnosis. Little evidence-based research has been conducted on the cause and effects of searching health concerns online. But as the internet is here to stay, does the current focus on highlighting the pitfalls to the public need to shift to a focus on the accessibility and reliability of health information online? Is this shift taking place already?

In the UK (and countless other countries), this also comes at a time when healthcare services are under-resourced, under-funded and are being increasingly relied upon. In December 2017, in the midst of a NHS winter crisis, The Royal College of General Practitioners broke ranks with other healthcare bodies in the UK and recommended, for the first time, that Dr Google could be used to help ease the pressures on surgeries across the UK – but only when seeking information from a ‘reputable source’. This was one arm of their ‘Three before GP’’ mantra which asks patients to consider three questions before booking a GP appointment, with the ultimate aim of reducing needless appointments in an already struggling and strained service.

There’s little doubt that global healthcare systems will need to address Dr Google head-on as there is an obvious need for governance on the issue. Highlighting how to use the internet responsibly when it comes to health information will be a crucial role for healthcare systems to adopt and will be an important, but difficult, message to craft.

Whilst directing the public to reliable information will be paramount, it will also be equally important to ensure that the public know when professional advice should be sought. There is a fine balance to strike between seeking professional medical advice and seeking online medical information. By embracing Dr Google, are we setting a dangerous precedent whereby the healthcare professional and patient relationship is broken down further still?

There are also other concerns about universal acceptance of seeking health information online. One of these is the rise of a 21st-century phenomenon, Cyberchondria – a person who compulsively searches the Internet for information about particular real or imagined symptoms of illness. Further still, there are huge concerns about asking people with mental health conditions to use online resources, as treatment for these individuals is based solely on the pretense that direct communication is key to successful treatment in this field.

There is huge appeal in digital healthcare. However, the message from healthcare systems on embracing Dr Google and seeking health-related information online will be balancing act and is one that they will need to both own and crafted with care.

Do you think you’re a bona fide cyberchondriac? You’re not alone! Take a look at this great infographic by Masters In Psychology Guide for more information about Dr Google’s questionable qualifications: https://visual.ly/community/infographic/health/dont-ask-dr-google-hes-not-actual-doctor

By Richard C.

4th March 2019

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