“Dr. Google,” Friend or Foe?
Is there anyone who hasn't consulted Google about a health issue?
Posted July 18, 2017
In a piece from a few years ago, I told the story of being referred to two dermatologists. I had two irritating skin conditions, and each of the dermatologist was an expert on one of them, so I was given two referrals. (I know how fortunate I am to have this level of health care through my HMO.)
Something amusing happened at each visit.
After examining me and deciding on a course of treatment, the first dermatologist said, “When you get home, don’t look up this condition on the internet because you’ll get too much information and you’ll become confused and scared.”
After examining me and deciding on a course of treatment, the second dermatologist said, “When you get home, look this condition up on the internet because you’ll want to learn everything you can about it.”
What’s a patient to do? Consult Dr. Google or not?
As a result of over sixteen years of chronic illness, Google has turned me into an expert at finding medical information on the internet. My husband marvels at what I can come up with to treat minor ailments and injuries that, a few years ago, would have had us making a doctor’s appointment.
For me, the answer to whether Google is friend or foe is that it is both. Google (or any search engine) is a mixed bag. The range of information is astonishing. At times, it can be tremendously helpful. At other times, however, it can lead me down the wrong path—giving me inaccurate information and even scaring me unnecessarily about a health issue. I love Google, but the odds of it being “foe” instead of “friend” go way up unless I exercise my own common sense and good judgment when using it.
Here are a few of experiences I’ve had with Dr. Google, first as friend, then as foe. I hope they serve as a guide to using Google wisely. It’s not easy to do, that’s for sure.
A toe in need
Last year, I was 90 percent sure I’d broken my right toe—the one that’s next to my big toe. From prior experience, I knew that, even if I took that toe to the doctor, the treatment if it turned out to be broken, would be to tape it to the toe next to it. My big toe was on one side of it. My middle toe was on the other. It seemed logical to me to tape it to the toe it resembled the most and that was the middle toe. So that’s the one I taped it to.
The pain got worse and worse. Assuming it was due to my lack of taping skill, I kept re-taping it, but it made no difference. I also tried on different shoes to see if one would provide enough protection to give me some relief. No luck. For two days, I was in terrible pain every time I took a step.
Then a light bulb went on in my head: Ask Dr. Google! It took me less than a minute to discover that I should have been taping the broken toe to my big toe, not to my middle one. The reason seemed so obvious once I read it: When a person walks, the middle toe automatically pulls outward (toward their little toe). So for me, every time I took a step, the broken toe was being pulled outward along with the middle toe it was taped to. No wonder it was hurting so much! As soon as I taped it to my big toe, the throbbing stopped. That day, Dr. Google came through for me.
Relief from “the sleep thief:” Restless Legs Syndrome
Before I became chronically ill, I developed a neurological disorder called Restless Legs Syndrome. When I get an attack of RLS, my legs aren’t restless. They’re seized by waves of gnawing unpleasant sensations that are so unbearable, I’m forced to move my legs to try and get relief. After each wave, the sensations subside, only to return within a minute. This can go on for hours. When an attack comes at night (which is when RLS most often occurs), it is impossible to sleep. The result can be a sleepless night, meaning one very long and unpleasant day ahead.
When I first developed Restless Legs Syndrome, I spent hours on Google, looking for sites with information on the condition. I found various ideas for relief, but nothing worked. Then I came upon an RLS organization in Southern California that had a neurologist on board who was willing to consult with patients for free. I sent him a message. He suggested that I ask my doctor about Mirapex or Requip, two Parkinson’s medications that, in very low doses, helped with RLS. I took the information to my doctor. Based on what I brought him, he agreed to prescribe a low dose of Mirapex, even though it was an off-label use of the medication.
It literally changed my life. Once again, I could sleep through the night. About ten years later, the FDA approved both Mirapex and Requip for treatment of Restless Legs Syndrome. I still depend on Mirapex for RLS. Ten years before, my doctor didn’t know that these medications could help with it but, thankfully, Dr. Google led me to a neurologist who did.
Dr. Google, DVM
I’ve recently learned that Dr. Google has several advanced degrees I wasn’t aware of, including Doctor of Veterinary Medicine. When I accidently cut one of my dog Scout’s toenails a bit too short, it started bleeding so much that everywhere she walked left a red paw print. It wasn’t bothering her in the slightest, but I was convinced I’d done something terribly wrong and I’d better get that bleeding stopped quickly.
I tried putting pressure on it for ten minutes. When that didn’t work, I consulted Dr. Google, DVM. The first thing I discovered was that this profuse bleeding was a common reaction to a nail being cut a bit too short, and was not something I needed to worry about. I also found a wealth of suggestions for stopping the bleeding. I used what I had on hand—cornstarch—and it worked immediately. This remedy would have never occurred to me. (Unfortunately, Doc Google doesn’t also clean up blood from floors or carpets; that task fell to me.)
Google as DVM again: The case of the scary-sounding condition that never was
When Scout was still a puppy, one day, while she was eating, her left back leg appeared to go into a spasm. She didn’t yelp in pain, but she couldn’t seem to step on the leg at all and started bouncing around the room on three limbs. I assumed there was something stuck in her paw, but couldn’t find anything. Concerned, to say the least, I consulted Dr. Google, DVM.
I found several sites saying that Labrador Retrievers (Scout is one) are prone to a condition with the ominous name, Canine Malignant Hyperthermia. It’s a hereditary disorder characterized by sudden muscle tremors, muscle rigidity, seizures, and in serious cases, a coma.
The information scared the living daylights out of me. We had an appointment with our vet in a few days for Scout’s last set of puppy shots, so I decided to wait until then and discuss it with her unless it happened again in which case I’d get in touch with her immediately. Even though I had a plan I was comfortable with, I worried about it until the vet appointment. At the appointment, our vet seemed amused at what I’d come up with as a result of my consultation with Dr. Google.
What did it turn out to be? A muscle cramp. All that energy wasted on worrying. Oh well, I’m sure I’ll do it again.
Assessing the side-effects of medications and treatments by reading forums where people discuss their personal experiences
I don’t expect everyone to agree with me here—and that’s fine—but I’ve become wary of sites that are based on people posting their personal experiences with medications and treatments. It’s not that their intentions aren’t good; they’re just trying to be helpful. But I think it’s likely that you won’t get an accurate picture of the odds of a medication or treatment causing this or that side-effect. This is because most people who post in those forums are, sadly, having a tough time with a medication or a treatment. (Google will lead you to a site where anyone has ever mentioned the medication or treatment.)
Although learning a bit about people’s experiences can be helpful, on the other side of helpful is the problem that, when you find someone reporting an adverse side effect (“I broke out in hives all over my body” or “I got the worst headache of my life”), you don’t know if this is a reaction that occurs in one out of ten cases, one out of 100,000 cases, or one in a million. Yes, there are some sites that compile the numbers of people who report various side effects, but I’ve found that using Google in this way leads me to worry and to expect the worse from a medication or a treatment.
From years of using Google to research medical issues, my conclusion is this: for any given medication or treatment, you can find people who said it made no difference; you can find people who said it helped; and you can find people who said it made them worse. Forums and the like can provide valuable information, and some of you may have had more positive experiences using Google in this way than I have. If so, I hope you’ll share your experience in the comments section below.
Google as conspirator to make me second-guess my health decisions
In 2015, I wrote about being diagnosed with breast cancer. If you want, you can read that piece here. Whether it’s cancer or another chronic illness (I suffer from several unfortunately), once you’ve settled on a treatment plan, I recommend that you don’t use Google to second-guess yourself.
I learned this the hard way. After having a lumpectomy, I decided on radiation and hormone therapy (now called endocrine therapy) as treatments. By the time I started these treatments, in addition to consulting with three oncologists, I’d done a lot of online research about all the options available to me given the pathology report and other “profile” information I was provided with after the surgery. I’d made my decision: radiation and endocrine therapy. Yet, even after beginning these treatments, I found myself drifting to websites that were devoted to convincing me that such treatments are nothing more than a conspiracy on the part of drug companies and managed health care to get rich.
It took me a couple of weeks to realize that using Google in this way was not helpful; in fact, it was only making me anxious. After all, I’d already researched the various treatment options; I’d already consulted with three oncologists; I’d already talked it over with my primary care doctor and with my husband. Given all of this, in my view, the self-compassionate thing to have done at this point would have been to stay away from sources that were making me second-guess my decision.
This doesn’t mean that it’s wrong to change your mind, but I recommend being careful about what information you rely on before you do so.
These are some of the experiences I’ve had with Google, MD and Google, DVM. Oh, and I’ve had some experiences with Google, DDS, but I’ll spare you a description of my dental woes.
Bottom line: use your common sense and your best judgment when doing medical research on the internet. Google can be an invaluable took, but there are times when it would be wise to—in the words of my friend Alida—step away from the computer!
If you’re coming up with too much conflicting information or if you begin to feel confused or scared, I recommend that you put the computer down and consult with those you know and trust (including yourself).
© 2017 Toni Bernhard. Thank you for reading my work. I’m the author of three books:
All of my books are available in audio format from Amazon, audible.com, and iTunes.
Visit www.tonibernhard.com for more information.
You might also like "Finding the Health Information You Need in the Internet."