TO DR GOOGLE OR NOT TO DR GOOGLE...?

Do you ever Google your symptoms? If so, you’re not alone; 1 in 20 Google searches is for health-related information and 1 in 5 of people turn to Facebook for questions about their health. This isn’t altogether that surprising considering we can order clothes online, have food from around the corner delivered to us and you can now virtually watch any movie or TV show whenever you want. The world is at our fingertips, on the other side of a keyboard, and so why wouldn’t we want to use the internet for our health when it can do everything else for us?

The problem with turning to Dr Google is twofold. Firstly health is very individual; assessments and treatments should be tailored to individuals based on the context of their lives and family histories. More to the point though the internet is not discriminatory about what information is posted online; it is a free-market and often it is not the evidence-based information that gets the most traction. (Historically, and even recently, think of the damage online anti-vaccination forums have on our rates of herd immunity!).

I would always advocate to not use the internet to look up your symptoms or diagnose yourself. It’s dangerous and it will also piss your doctor off if you go in claiming to know more than they do. Despite this I’m realistic and no matter how much I tell you not to Google your symptoms, you’re probably going to. Rather than get angry at my patients, or sound like a hypocrite and claim I never look up my symptoms (guilty!), I try to teach patients how to use the internet effectively to get accurate information that you can use in combination with seeing a health professional. 

Nurse Robbie’s tips for getting health information online: 

1) Take everything with a grain of salt. Health is very individual; how you experience an illness or injury might be very different to how I experience that same illness or injury. Even if you’re reading something you know relates to you understand that it’s a general guide and your experience will vary to other peoples. A website is going to list everything associated with that illness experience to cover itself but that does not mean you will experience that whole array of symptoms. Make sure to follow-up any research with a healthcare professional; this is where person-centred care becomes very important in shaping your personal journey.

2) Make sure it’s a credible website from a respectable source. This is paramount because anyone, anywhere can build a website and write whatever they want. Be careful with personal blogs and forums - sharing stories is a powerful way to connect and advocate but it isn’t scientific evidence. Generally stick to websites that are government sponsored or from well-known health organisations because these websites must follow certain guidelines and policies in order to remain credible and registered health authorities. Here are some of my favourite examples: 

-Centre for Disease Control (https://www.cdc.gov/). I use this website mainly for travel health information with my patients, you can search what you need to know by country (https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/destinations/list/).

-Better Health Channel (my personal favourite) (https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/). Excellent general, credible information on common conditions, topics and illnesses.

-The Australian STI guidelines (http://www.sti.guidelines.org.au/). Up to date information on STIs, testing protocol, treatment, etc.

-Immunise Australia (http://www.immunise.health.gov.au/). This is a great resource for all things vaccines, anyone with concerns or questions about immunisation and/or healthcare workers who need information. 

-Diabetes Australia (https://www.diabetesaustralia.com.au/). Diabetes is a growing epidemic and this is a great source of empowerment for my patients who need more information and guidance, including amazing meal plans.

-Beyond Blue (https://www.beyondblue.org.au/). Mental health issues are also on the rise and it’s important that we make space for this. This is a great resource for people struggling with a mental health issue, but also for people wanting to support somebody. 

-THERE ARE SO MANY MORE EXCELLENT WEBSITES! The main tip is, whatever you are trying to research, look to who is the authority or governing body is on that topic (for example if you were doing research about how to help a friend with an Eating Disorder, you would turn to The Butterfly Foundation). 

3) Look for resources and references! A credible website should include all the research they used to write that post so that you can verify that what they are saying has been reproduced through extensive research (see below / every Hot on Health article!).

4) Don’t type personal information about your health and symptoms online! You don’t know who is controlling that website and it’s there forever. The only exception to this rule is if you’re doctor or healthcare worker is helping you to use an online platform for your treatment but even then be sure to check the privacy policy around this.

5) Use the correct terminology when searching, if you know it. You’re going to get evidence-based information typing in words like, ‘chlamydia’ rather than ‘help it hurts when I pee!’ which is more likely to send you to a forum or blog-post.

As previously stated I would strongly advocate for not looking up your symptoms online. If you do though just ensure that whatever information you find online you use as a way to get to the doctor. Confirm what you’ve found with your doctor, nurse or relevant healthcare worker and be open to their expertise and the option for debate. No website is going to replace person-centred care from a healthcare professional but it can be a good source of information, start of a conversation or something used in collaboration with seeing your doctor.

Thoughts?

Remember the Hot on Health motto, especially as you type those symptoms into Google, “There is no healthcare without self-care.” 


Resources/ Further Reading:

ACQSHC, 2014, ‘Health Literacy: Taking action to improve safety and quality’, Australian Commission on Quality and Safety in Health Care Health Literacy: Taking action to improve safety and quality, viewed 04 April 2016, <http://www.safetyandquality.gov.au/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Health-Literacy-Taking-action-to-improve-safety-and-quality.pdf>.

Aubusson, K. 2017, ‘How Googling your health questions just got easier and more reliable’, Sydney Morning Herald, NSW, accessed 25 Feb 2017, < http://www.smh.com.au/national/health/dr-google-makes-australian-house-calls-with-launch-of-new-health-condition-cards-20170131-gu232o.html>.

Buhi, E., Daley, E., Fuhrmann, H. & Smith, S. 2010, ‘An observational study of how young people search for online sexual health information’, Journal of American College Health, vol. 58, no. 2, pp. 101 - 111.

Choo, E., Ranney, M., Chan, T., Trueger, N., Walsh, A., Tegtmeyer, K, McNamara, S., Choi, R. & Carroll, C. 2014, ‘Twitter as a tool for communication and knowledge exchange in academic medicine: A guide for skeptics and novices’, Medical Teacher, vol. 37, no. 5, pp. 411-416.

Cohn, A. & Richters, J. 2012, ‘“My Vagina Makes Funny Noises”: Analysing Online Forums to Assess the Real Sexual Health Concerns of Young People’ International Journal of Sexual Health, vol. 25, no. 2, pp 93- 103. 

PHCRIS 2017, ‘Social Media in Primary Health Care’, Primary Health Care Research & Information Service, South Australia, accessed 15 April 2017, < http://www.phcris.org.au/guides/social_media_phc.php>. 

Mckee, R. 2013, ‘Ethical issues in using social media for health and health care research’, Health Policy, vol. 110, no. 2, pp. 298 - 301. 

Sensis 2016, ‘Sensis Social Media Report 2016’, Sensis, VIC, accessed 15 April 2017, < https://www.sensis.com.au/asset/PDFdirectory/Sensis_Social_Media_Report_2016.PDF>.