Do you rely too much on “Dr. Google?’ It could do more harm than good.

I’ve always been fascinated by doctors – especially these 1960’s TV documentaries: Ben Casey, Dr. Kildare (be still my beating heart) and Marcus Welby. They are the ultimate example of what a family record should be. I also loved watching the tough female doctors in the TV series Strong Medicine, set in Philadelphia where I attended nursing school and became highly skilled at injecting sterile water into oranges, which no doubt would have impressed any real doctor I could hit.

My favorite document now is Dr. Google and I’m not alone.

A 2021 JAMA Network Open Poll of 5,000 participants found that nearly two-thirds of adult Americans go online each year to search for health information for themselves or others.

The reasons for “Dr. Google’s popularity is obvious: you can search online 24 hours a day, you won’t have to deal with sick patients in the waiting room, and you’ll never be asked for your Medicare or insurance card.

You can also manipulate your search to get the results you want, or start your search again if you don’t like the results. dr Google GOOGL,
can be reassuring, but sometimes frightening.

Reading the many sources of information — and misinformation — can contribute to a bad case of cyberchondria, an intensification of irrational fears about common symptoms in those who already tend to see worst-case scenarios around every corner.

It can also increase the “nocebo” effect, where people with expectations of side effects (such as bad side effects from treatments or medications) are more likely to experience them.

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A family gathering

dr Google has many “cousins” that people turn to – whether they have a new health problem or a chronic illness like diabetes or arthritis.

Facebook FB,
Groups like those for long COVID, and other virtual communities like those found on HealthBoards, a long-standing social networking support group consisting of over 280 internet forums dedicated to patient-to-patient health support, or PatientsLikeMe, which is proud of aims to be the world’s largest integrated health management platform and real data are all popular.

While they offer great support and can often provide useful information, caution is advised as many are not professionally curated and can be full of unfounded opinions or advice.

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digital competence

Some technical understanding is required to navigate the web for online health information and to distinguish between the unproven, the quackery, the likely plausible, and the solid medical explanations and guidance.

Internet research requires digital literacy, the ability to query search engines using keywords, interpret results, handle hyperlinks, access video clips, interpret interactive graphics, and assess the reliability of a source.

eHealth literacy encompasses the skills required to effectively use the health-related materials and resources available online. It includes the ability to weed out incorrect or poorly presented information and according to the National Health Instituterequires six core competencies:

  • health literacy

  • Traditional literacy (the ability to read and understand texts and to speak, read and write a language coherently)

  • Information literacy (the ability to understand how knowledge is organized and to locate, evaluate, and use the information effectively)

  • Scientific literacy (having knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes to understand, reason and interpret scientific data)

  • Media literacy (ability to access and think critically about media content)

  • Computer skills

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Simple tips to improve your health literacy
  • Repeat what the doctor tells you in your own words

  • Bring a friend or loved one to your appointment

  • Keep an ongoing list of questions for your doctor

  • If necessary, ask for a translator

  • Ask for patient handouts

To use or not to use, that is the question

Most healthcare providers believe that using the internet for health searches does not interfere with the doctor-patient interaction. Knowledgeable patients can contribute positively to a shared experience, even if it may prolong the visit, by being aware of the relative merits, limitations, and risks of a proposed drug or test. Patient-centered decision-making (decisions based on patient values ​​and goals) can be the result.

Paula Belsh, a registered nurse at Kaiser Permanente in Oakland, Calif., says, “I have found that many patients have done their due diligence and researched their medical conditions and the planned or suggested treatments. We encourage them to use medically reputable websites like those of MD Anderson Cancer Center or the American Diabetes Associationand look at more than one source.”

Belsh might ask patients to show her the pages they used or explain their understanding of a disorder so she can correct misconceptions. “If used properly, the internet can help people become well informed and understand that they have choices and options in healthcare,” she says.

dr Google: What you need to know

Symptom checkers (online software that uses computer algorithms to ask users a series of questions or let them enter symptoms themselves) have two main functions: they help with self-diagnosis and they help make decisions about next steps.

A study from 2015 in the British Medical Journal, which reviewed 23 different symptom-checking programs, found that they were better than general internet searches, but still needed to be used with caution.

The algorithms listed the correct diagnosis first only 34% of the time, the correct diagnosis was among the top 3 diagnoses 51% of the time, and an accurate diagnosis was among the top 20 diagnoses 58% of the time.

It’s important to note that symptom checkers do not consider family history, medications you use, chronic medical conditions, or other individual health characteristics. Triage decisions, i.e. decisions made by the person e.g. “Should I call an ambulance?” were found to be diagnostically correct only 57% of the time, with this number being significantly higher for emergencies such as a possible heart attack or stroke.

Symptom checkers obviously have limited diagnostic and triage capabilities, although there are differences in reliability and can provide some useful information. Still, it’s important to realize that when in doubt, err on the side of caution and call your doctor.

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E-Health Browsing Tips
  • Use search engines that have their own built-in health information curated by major medical centers like the Mayo Clinic.

  • PubMedthe most popular and well-known medical search engine, contains full-text journal articles and allows you to search resources from the US National Library of Medicine. The Cochrane Library is a collection of databases of high quality, credible research.

  • Visit reputable websites of well-known institutions or organizations.

  • Look for “.gov,” “.edu,” or “.org” in the web address, which indicates that the site is operated by a government agency, educational institution, or healthcare professional organization. The websites of reputable health organizations like the American Heart Association are full of useful information about wellness and health, as well as disease.

  • Check out the credentials of the people who wrote or reviewed the content, when it was written, and what the site’s editorial policies are.

  • Look for scientific references such as those found in peer-reviewed journals such as the New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Barbra Williams Cosentino RN, LCSW, is a psychotherapist based in Queens, NY, and a freelance writer whose essays and articles on health, parenting, and mental health have appeared in The New York Times, Medscape, BabyCenter, and many other national and online publications.

This article is reprinted with permission from© 2022 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc. All rights reserved.

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